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Pillars of Strength

Brokers offer free advice to the families of the World Trade Center victims.

Since September 11, David Mendels has felt more like a secret agent than a financial planner. First came cryptic phone calls by unidentified intermediaries seeking advice on behalf of families of undocumented workers who died in the terrorist attacks. Then came faceless discussions about how to secure benefits for the survivors.

“It wasn't the normal way of doing business,” says Mendels, whose financial planning company, Creative Financial Concepts, is based in Manhattan. He never met the family members, who he believes were related to World Trade Center security guards from Ghana, but he was able to offer advice on benefits and workers' comp.

Mendels is not alone in reaching out to the victims. The Financial Planning Association offers surviving family members, the injured and those who lost their jobs referrals — for free advice — to more than 400 advisors throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and more in Washington and Pennsylvania. And a coalition of six warehouses is offering “sensitivity” training to select advisors who are providing pro bono services (see story, this page).

Demand for referrals was slow at first, but has been growing with the distribution of checks.

“At the end of the day, no matter what they do, or how much they hurt inside, people are still going to have to make some choices,” says Bruce Ross, a Certified Financial Planner in Manhattan.

Chris Cordero, a partner at RegentAtlantic Capital in Chatham, N.J., has had heart-breaking meetings. One woman lost her husband — who was making over $1 million a year — and then discovered he had no life insurance or will. “At that point, the only thing that we're able to do is damage control,” Cordero says. “We have to tell the family that things were not left in the best way and that they're going to have to make some difficult decisions ahead.”

The experience has taken its toll emotionally. “We're not trained psychologists,” Cordero says. “You try to be there for the family and do what you can in a financial planning area. Where we help the most is when we're able to show the families that there is a way to maintain some semblance of their former lives.”

Six Firms Form 9/11 Alliance

Six firms have established the financial advice referral program for the 9/11 United Services Group, which provides free advice to families of victims of the terrorist attacks.

If a family chooses to invest with one of the firms, it will pay “preferential rates, where possible.”

Families, in effect, are getting a financial plan for free — a fee many advisors waive if a prospect signs on anyway. Participating firms felt it was “totally appropriate” and important to the “integrity of the program” to charge for investing, says Steven Wisch, voluntary COO of the group.

American Express, JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Prudential Financial and Salomon Smith Barney agreed to provide free financial planning for the life of the program and require participating CFAs to take sensitivity training. Among the languages spoken by advisors are Creole, Bengali, Korean, two Chinese dialects and other languages.

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