Ron Malis is an advisor at Independent Financial Concepts Group in Toronto. About 80% of his clients are adults who have disabilities, or parents who have children with disabilities. The remaining 20% are families with more traditional financial needs.
A middle-aged client asked Ron Malis for advice. Her sister left her $200,000. The problem is the client receives income through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), so receiving that inheritance meant she’d lose that support. Clients typically can only have a maximum $5,000 in non-exempt assets and still get ODSP. But it varies case-by-case.
Malis, an advisor at Independent Financial Concepts Group in Toronto, offered a solution. “I discussed ways to safeguard the inheritance so she didn’t have to get rid of it, and also wouldn’t lose her monthly income,” he says.
He put $150,000 in a Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), and the rest in a discretionary trust. Both are exempt assets.
But the issue would’ve been avoided, notes Malis, if the sister had left his client the money in a Henson Trust.
“This means the trustees have absolute discretion over that trust,” he says. “The beneficiary has no right to direct the assets. So from an ODSP perspective, those assets do not belong to the beneficiary even though they might benefit her.”
He adds that picking trustees whom you can count on is of utmost importance, “because they control the purse strings.” Their job is to ensure monies are spent on needful things in the interest of the beneficiary and not wasted. So choose someone with financial acumen who can deal with the lawyer, accountant and advisor.
Malis works with lawyers who draft exempt-asset trusts, as well as estate plans. His clients are adults on ODSP or parents who have children with developmental disabilities.
For the latter, he says the best option is often to use life insurance to fund a Henson Trust. Malis uses this example: Say the parents are 32-year-old non-smokers. They can buy a $500,000 joint last-to-die policy, which is permanent. The leveled premium would cost $168 per month.
But if they invest that same amount each month in non-registered funds, they’d have to earn an annual after-tax return of 7.68% for 40 years to get $500,000.
“It’s a gamble,” he says. “Who knows if they’ll last that long or get that amount of return. With life insurance, the $500,000 is there automatically whether they die in five or 45 years. Plus, it’ll be paid out tax-free and bypass probate. This option shifts the investment risk from them onto the insurance company.”
Way back when
The federal government introduced the RDSP in 2008 and Malis took note. “It wins two prizes. First, it’s the most generous registered savings plan ever offered by the government. Second, it’s also the most complex.”
Beneficiaries can get a maximum $90,000 from the government—$70,000 in grants and $20,000 in bonds. Meanwhile, the personal contribution limit is $200,000, which can be added until the year the beneficiary turns 59.
You also have to contribute funds each year to continue receiving the government grant.
And the RDSP is an ODSP-exempt asset. There are confusing calculations regarding how much beneficiaries can get, and penalties if they withdraw at the wrong time, die or have a terminal illness. “Very few advisors understand it, and I realized there are a number of challenges families would face when applying,” he says.
Malis says he got into this niche so he could help families who don’t understand the RDSP or ODSP, and enjoys explaining the complexities of each.
But he knew it wouldn’t be easy. He did a lot of research and spoke to a number of lawyers. “There are no courses to teach advisors this stuff. The few CE courses I took didn’t teach much.”
To find clients, he looked at his book. “A certain percentage of the population has a disability, so I realized a percentage of my client base probably also [does].” And he was right—such clients made up about 5% of his book. And he’s grown that figure to 80% in the last four years. He didn’t shed any of his original client base, and instead focused solely on building up those needing ODSP and RDSP planning.
How? By delivering presentations to agencies that support people with disabilities, including Geneva Centre for Autism and PLAN Toronto. Malis discusses challenges for families and offers solutions to ensure there’s enough money for their dependents, now and after they’re gone. Plus, he has a quarterly e-newsletter that’s distributed to clients and professionals in the disabilities sector. These two prospecting tactics, he says, allow him to be viewed as an expert.
Malis admits it can be difficult communicating with adults who have disabilities. “I have to figure out if they have the capacity to understand my advice. If they don’t, I may not be able to work with them,” he says, noting this rarely happens.
To determine comprehension, Malis pays attention to the questions the client asks. For instance, he might ask, “If we set up this RDSP, can I take out as much money as I want, whenever I want?” Malis will respond, “No, and I’ve explained this to you. If you do that there could be significant penalties.”
If the client repeats the question, Malis knows the client likely doesn’t understand. At this point, he’ll ask if there’s a relative that helps manage finances, which is often the case, and suggest the three of them meet.
Suzanne Yar Khan is a Toronto-based financial writer.