Meet Martin Shenkman and Patti Klein, a man and a woman on a mission. Klein was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) six years ago. That's when the two New Jersey residents—he's a tax attorney and a CPA, she's an anesthesiologist—had to face the difficult task of restructuring their estate and financial plans due to her illness.
Even with his background, Shenkman could find little information on financial planning for people with MS. Since then, the couple have embarked on a campaign to educate people about the need for a financial game plan tailored to each patient's condition.
“Health care costs play a major role in two-thirds of all personal bankruptcies,” Shenkman stresses. “Proper financial planning can avert a catastrophe.”
A diagnosis of a chronic illness doesn't mean the end of earning potential, notes Shenkman.
“For some neurologic diseases, individuals who are newly diagnosed have a window of productive years where they can successfully continue working, saving, and investing. It's important to learn how to maximize and leverage those years,” Shenkman says.
Klein's neurologist insisted that she stop working nights and weekends, as a regular sleep schedule was critical to her health. She also began nightly injections of glatiramer acetate (brand name Copaxone). Three and a half years after her diagnosis, Klein had to stop working. After Klein was diagnosed, the couple consolidated their financial accounts to reduce paperwork and converted everything possible to auto-pay to reduce the number of transactions each month.
When Klein's illness made traveling by air too difficult, the couple purchased an Airstream RV and took their message on the road. By then, they had become dedicated volunteers for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Along with Elvis, their Norfolk Terrier, Shenkman and Klein began staging free financial and estate-planning seminars for people with chronic illnesses across the country. (Go to rv4thecause.org or chronicillnessplanning.org for more information.)
Since Klein's diagnosis, Shenkman has also written four books on these topics, including Estate Planning for People with a Chronic Condition or Disability (demoshealth.com; all profits go to charity) and Funding the Cure, a book on fundraising for the National MS Society (nationalmssociety.org). In addition, he has written articles on financial planning for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research (michaeljfox.org).
Legal experts advise people recently diagnosed with an illness that is expected to cause declining mental and physical health to update their financial and legal arrangements as soon as possible.
People should also review their life insurance policy to see if it allows them to convert. Klein converted her term life insurance policy to a permanent policy because she knew that obtaining new insurance would be very costly, if it were even available. Term life insurance policies only provide coverage for a pre-established period of time, after which coverage ends. But many term policies will allow a policyholder to switch to a permanent policy within a specific period of time. If a policy does include such a window, it is important to opt-in, according to Shenkman.
Unfortunately, neurologists and patients rarely discuss the need for financial planning, according to Sotirios Parashos, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist and Parkinson's disease (PD) specialist at the Minneapolis Clinic of Neurology in Edina, MN, and member of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN).
“I suspect many patients are unaware of this aspect of their illness, but they should be. Some individuals haven't thought of it yet, while others may be too timid to bring the subject up,” Dr. Parashos says.
Dr. Parashos advises patients to talk to their neurologist about what they can realistically expect in terms of their short- and long-term employment.
Awareness of financial and estate planning specifically for individuals with chronic neurologic disorders is still in its infancy, says Dr. Parashos, but hopefully that will change: “For a lot of people, the subject doesn't even cross their minds until they find themselves with expenses that they just can't pay.”