Written by Dianne Molvig Tuesday, November 01 2011Snapshot: Mary Anne Ehlert, president and founder, Ehlert Financial Group and Protected Tomorrows
When Mary Anne Ehlert asked her parents if they had an estate plan, they told her that was none of her business. She realized that her parents – who were working class and didn’t talk about their money – probably thought she was just being nosy. So Ehlert reframed her question to her parents to get to the heart of the matter: If something happened to them, what plan did they have in place to provide for her younger sister, Marcia, who had cerebral palsy? Her parents said they didn’t want to talk about it.
That was in 1990, just a few months after Ehlert left the corporate finance world after 20 years and set up her own Chicago-area financial planning firm, Ehlert Financial Group. That conversation with her parents spurred Ehlert to steer her firm in a new direction. She wanted to help families like hers, who meant well but were making serious mistakes in planning for the future of their children with special needs – whether that was due to a developmental disability, a cognitive impairment, or a mental illness.
For Ehlert, educating and helping such families has become her life’s work. Besides being a financial adviser, she launched Protected Tomorrows, a company that helps families with comprehensive life-care planning, as well as financial planning.
She also teaches other financial advisers how to work with families having special needs children or adults. And she’s authored a book, The Gift I Was Given: The Journey of a Caregiver Through the Stages of What Now? Why Me? and Ah Ha! The book relates Ehlert’s experiences as a caregiver to her sister, a son who’s deaf and has a mental illness, and parents who suffered illnesses in old age.
Womenetics: Why do you feel it’s important to reach out to special needs families?
Mary Anne Ehlert: Their lives are complex. They’re dealing with doctors to get diagnoses and information. They’re trying to get the right education for their child in the school system. They might be dealing with behavioral issues or seizures. If you have a family member with a disability or a mental illness, you’re just coping with the day-to-day. The last thing on your mind is the future and estate planning. And how would you know you should do special planning? You don’t know what you don’t know. When I talk to family groups, I’m always amazed that 80 percent of these families have never heard this kind of information before.
Womenetics: How did Protected Tomorrows come to be?
Ehlert: Through my financial planning firm, I was working with families one on one. Families would say to me, “OK, we have our estate planning done. What’s next?” Protected Tomorrows is a consulting company that does the “what’s next.” This was a natural step for me. Protected Tomorrows’ mission is to advocate for changes and find solutions to help special needs families do life-care planning, not just financial planning.
Womenetics: What does life-care planning entail?
Ehlert: We help families find schools, housing, work, recreational opportunities – all the different things you need to have a full life. People used to think that individuals with disabilities had limited capabilities. Now we’re learning those individuals have unique abilities that we need to foster.
Protected Tomorrows also has a division, LifeCare Design Studio, an architecture company that helps people convert their homes to accommodate family members with disabilities. And we just kicked off a new program that will do job development. We’ll teach people with disabilities to be personal trainers and help them get jobs at health clubs training others with disabilities.
Mary Anne Ehlert
Womenetics: You could have just continued to run your financial planning business. Why did you take the leap of launching Protected Tomorrows, too?
Ehlert: In my early years, I was working with a business coach who told me, “You’re doing something that’s going to not only change the financial industry, but also have an impact on families, doctors, teachers. You’ll touch so many lives. You just don’t see it yet.”
In 1995, my sister had a seizure and suffocated in her sleep. I was devastated, feeling, what’s the purpose of this, all the stuff you go though when someone you’re close to dies. I went to a session with my coach, and he said to me, “You need to take today to think of everything you’ve learned from your sister and figure out what to do with it.”
Later I was cleaning out a dresser for a caregiver I was bringing in to help with my mom, who had dementia. In a drawer I found all these letters she’d written to me in the previous few years and never sent. She wrote about when my sister was born, how she felt guilty asking me as a 10 year old to take on adult responsibilities for my sister, about the dreams she and my dad had had for Marcia – all these things I’d never known.
That was the turning point, my final impetus. I decided to take all that I’d learned and make lives better. I wanted to expand my work to help special needs families.
Womenetics: So to ask that question special needs families often have asked you: What’s next?
Ehlert: I’ve brought more planners into the financial planning company to start transitioning the firm’s management. My goal in the next five years is to focus more on Protected Tomorrows – finding new solutions, building new opportunities, training more people so more families can be touched. The last stage of my career will focus on that.
Of course, you always have those days when you wonder: Can I do another day of this? You’re slugging away at everyday stuff. That’s when I feel a tap on my shoulder and hear, “Keep going.” I’m not quite sure where that’s coming from, but I think it’s coming from Marcia.
Dianne Molvig is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer who writes regularly about business management, financial services, law practice, consumer education, and other topics.