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Help clients cope with expected — or sudden — disability

Pain in his neck, not his mouth, drove Barry Kaplan to abandon dentistry.

“I was a misery. You could probably see it in my face,” says Kaplan, who at his doctor’s insistence, closed his dental practice, filed for long-term disability insurance benefits, and eventually became a certified financial planner.

Now the chief investment adviser at Cambridge Wealth Counsel in Atlanta, Kaplan knows more than most how to navigate through a permanent disability that disrupts immediate income flow and long-term financial projections. And that knowledge puts him ahead when it comes to finding clients.

patient healthcare old retirement disability by Bloomberg News
A physical therapist, right, walks with a patient at Jukoukai Hospital in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Japan spent more than any other country in the world keeping people 65 years or older in hospital in 2011, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data, while medical expenses are forecast to rise 54 percent to 54 trillion yen ($506 billion) in fiscal 2025 compared with 2012, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

The disabled worker population continues to grow steadily, according to a 2013 report by the Portland, Maine, nonprofit Council for Disability Awareness. The number of disabled workers receiving SSDI claim payments increased 1.3% from 2012 to 2013, outpacing the 0.2% growth in the covered worker population.

Disability planning is “a very complicated octopus. It has lots of tentacles,” says adviser Carolyn McClanahan, who is also a Financial Planning contributing writer.

A physician before becoming an adviser at Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida, McClanahan has a realistic view of the risks of medical disability that could throw a wrench into clients’ careers.

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Both Kaplan and McClanahan say it helps to think about disability planning as a set of tasks.

First, clients should select effective long-term disability insurance and pay the premiums with post-tax dollars, the pair suggests. If one is in a specialized profession, an “own occupation” rider should be de rigueur.

Disability planning is “a very complicated octopus. It has lots of tentacles.” — Carolyn McClanahan, adviser at Life Planning Partners, Jacksonville, Florida.

When it comes time to apply for benefits, an adviser’s comprehensive knowledge of all of those benefits that are available can provide tremendous help for clients. “You have to become their advocate. You have to get them explanations for all the ins and outs of the policy,” McClanahan says.

Kaplan recommends having the client hire an expert disability consultant, not necessarily a lawyer, to help fill out the applications and cut the red tape.

“You are stepping into the unknown when you fill these out,” he says, adding it is best to review the application before a client submits it, “because once they submit, it’s too late to clean it.”

Kaplan was 45 when he quit dentistry. Several years earlier, he had taken a CFP course and just before he started to receive disability benefits, he passed the CFP examination. But his two long-term disability insurance contracts, despite having bought “own occupation” riders, allowed the underwriter to reduce or offset his benefits if his earned income each month surpassed set amounts.

As a result, Kaplan made sure to plan to receive his compensation from his employer, which included bonus payments, on an annualized, rather than quarterly basis. That way, no single month of income triggered the insurer’s required offset of benefits.

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Paying long-term, disability insurance premiums with post-tax dollars means the benefits will not be taxed as income, Kaplan and McClanahan say. But the tax deductions they might have taken for medical and mortgage expenses, for instance, may no longer be useful.

Disabled clients should try to balance tax-deductible medical and other expenses with any taxable income they may still receive, McClanahan says. “In a nutshell, if you know you are going to have a bunch of expenses, plan the income so that you make the most of deductions,” she says.

For the disabled, there are also property tax exemptions in some jurisdictions. In New York, for example, local governments and school districts may grant a reduction of up to 50% of the assessed value of a legal residence for a qualifying individual.

Disability forces many to reset their retirement goals. Advisers need to remind disabled clients to plan for their future when either their disability insurance runs out, or they reach retirement age, McClanahan says.

Those goals should not get lost, and may even require a non-working spouse to retrain and return to the workforce, she says. “You’ve got to save for your future still. So we have to ask clients: ‘Is there something else you can do?’ The most important thing is to make certain the clients are living within their means,” McClanahan says.

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