Cliff Shnier

Cliff Shnier

When Cliff Shnier moved his family of five from Toronto, Canada, to Arizona in 1994, one of the first connections he made was with the Council for Jews with Special Needs (now Gesher Disability Resources). His oldest son, Jesse, has autism, so Cliff knew that it was immediately important that he connect his family to his new community. They found strong bonds within the group. Jesse excitedly became a bar mitzvah just before his 21st birthday in the b’nai mitzvah sponsored by the Council and still remains active with Gesher.

Shnier, who is 72, was a trial attorney prior to his move and came to Arizona for a new business opportunity. It wouldn’t be the last shift in his career. As he amassed information in his own family’s planning, Shnier’s experience led him to realize that there was other important work ahead in his professional future. After having legal documents drawn up for his family, he realized something huge was missing. “I walked out of there with a nice set of documents: a beautifully bound will, a family trust, a special needs-trust,” Shnier recalled. “But I felt acutely aware of the missing piece; nobody had given me any advice about how much funding the special-needs trust required or financial strategies to get there. I knew I had to provide for Jesse’s care and support for the rest of his life. The ideal solution was to have advice that covered both areas — legal and financial.”

In 2014, Shnier earned his financial licensing and began to conceptualize what would become Meridian Special Needs Planning, LLC. The company offers all components for a complete plan: the legal side, including wills, trusts, special-needs trusts and other estate planning documents, as well as guardianship; and the financial side, concurrently providing a strategy, including specific guidance on supplemental income for the child with a disability and a detailed roadmap to get there. Meridian consists of Shnier, his business partner Nathan Buckles, and an adjunct attorney who prepares the legal documents. “Having both the legal and the financial planning done under one roof is more efficient and more likely to prevent costly mistakes due to lack of coordination. Only one or two other companies in the entire country offer this,” he said.

“Estate planning when you have a child with special needs is different from what it will be for your neighbors. Not more difficult, but different,” stated Shnier. The wrong planning can have devastating effects, for example, an improper beneficiary designation. If the child receives a lump sum from an inheritance, insurance or gift, they can become disqualified from government benefits potentially worth millions over that child’s lifetime.

Shnier points out that there is more to this planning than law and finance. As important as the financial plan is what Shnier calls family ‘bench strength.’ “We’re not just telling mom and dad to start thinking about setting aside money. We get them thinking about siblings, cousins and others who can play a support role and plan for who steps in once mom and dad no longer can manage,” said Shnier. “It’s a comprehensive plan that helps parents sleep at night.”

It’s evident in speaking with Shnier that he loves the impact of his work. He is grateful that his lived experiences can be put to use, helping parents of kids with special needs feel confident that they are taking steps at whatever stage they are at to provide care for their families for the long term. He resonates with the saying, ‘When you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism,’ because they’re all unique. Yet there are still commonalities. “These parents know that I’ve lived what they’re living. I know what it’s like to be in their shoes. There are certain common experiences and they see in the way I’m able to talk to them something that they wouldn’t see from somebody who hasn’t lived the experience himself.”

Shnier and his business partner get out into the community regularly by conducting workshops for parent support groups, parents served by school special education departments, religious support organizations and advocacy groups. The ultimate goal is to give parents and caregivers peace of mind that there is a plan in place for their kids to have lasting support, even in their eventual absence. “Every time a family walks out of my office with that look of relief on their faces, that is success to me,” shared Shnier with a smile, “because they have finally gotten their estate documents completed and they have a financial plan to get them there. That’s a big deal.” JN

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Elyse Horvath is an entrepreneur and freelance writer living in Scottsdale.