A Well-Built Special Needs Plan Starts With a Skilled Architect

By Steve Rhatigan, Principal, Archer Consulting Group  

“Success in Life comes not from holding a good hand, but playing a poor hand well.” Warren G. Lester

“What will become of my special needs child when I am no longer there to take care of them?”  The answer depends on the quality of the estate and financial plan created to address that reality; and, the quality of the plan depends greatly on the planner and their experience in this very complex specialty. 

All too often families become swamped by the complexity of “law” and end up with a pile of costly documents that are nearly indecipherable and do little to portray the real intent of the plan.  To avoid this problem, it may be helpful to imagine that you are constructing your new home instead of a complex estate and financial plan.  Since most of us live in a home we will have a better idea of the what, why and how of that process.

Developing a good special needs plan in many ways is analogous to building a home and the planner becomes your architect while the lawyer becomes the builder.  The planner, or architect, should also be able to recommend the best “sub-contractors” for your specific project.  In the case of the special needs plan, the general contractor is the special needs attorney.  There are, however, many sub-contractors that will need to be included such as; residential, schooling and program providers; financial advisor and asset manager, trustee, trust advisor, guardian and other successor positions, and the list goes on.  Hopefully this approach will ensure that the proper planning steps are taken and that the end result will be understandable, attainable and successful.

In the process of developing a good plan for a special needs child, the architect will spend a great deal of time understanding your needs (family size and age, type of special needs, etc.) and will look at the location of where your house will be constructed (where you live, where the disabled person lives and where the guardian and other team members live), then begin the process of rendering options for your review. At this point you can begin to add in all the extras that you want in this house. As you go along, the architect will point out the positives and negatives of your choices thus creating and fostering an exchange of ideas that helps all the participants to create the best house possible. This is the planning phase and is essential to a successful outcome and a “house” that stands the test of time.

As you go through this process the architect is also keeping an eye on the budget for the house. Every choice you make has a financial consequence and must be addressed in the sense of what is affordable in your unique situation. The old adage that “You have champagne taste but a beer budget” is a sure prescription for disaster. Your house must be priced so that there is a good likelihood that it will be affordable for the long term.

Another important part of this financial planning process is a review of other resources that may be available, the major ones being Social Security, Veteran’s benefits and judgments or structured settlements. Your architect must be well grounded in these topics to ensure that your house has all the proper insulation that it requires.

Once you have completed this phase of the process then it’s time to bring in the builder (lawyer) to create the necessary legal documents that will be the foundation of your great new home. If you have done the proper preplanning as described above, this part of the process should be quicker and less costly. The end product will also be better.

Now that the foundation has been laid comes the most important part of the planning process; the creation and maintenance of The Letter of Intent.

Simply put, the Letter of Intent is a document written by you (the parents or guardians) or other family members that describes your son or daughter’s history, his or her current status, and what you hope for him or her in the future.  You would be wise to write this letter today and add to it as the years go by, updating it when information about your son or daughter changes.  To the maximum extent possible, it is also a good idea to involve your child in the writing of this Letter, so that the Letter truly “presents” and represents your child.  The Letter is then ready at any moment to be used by all the individuals who will be involved in caring for your son or daughter, should you become ill or disabled yourself, or when you should pass away.

The process of developing a sound special needs plan is difficult but essential. Once you have the foundation created and the Letter of Intent in place you are half way home.  Just like a real home, it will require maintenance and upkeep to make sure it stays in top shape.

This entire process has dealt with the reality that one day you will die and you wish your special needs child protected and cared for in a manner that you prescribe.  It is sometimes called the Crisis Plan.

But what about those things you must do to protect them, and you, during your life? That’s the Lifeplan. We’ll cover that process in a future article.


Steve Rhatigan
Principal, Founder

Archer Consulting Group
Financial, Legal and Lifetime Care Strategies
Special Needs Planning
1717 St. James Place, Suite 205
Houston, TX  77056

713.572.1717  Office
713.724.9539  Mobile
713.572.1723  Fax