Bank of America’s Merrill Edge program for mass-affluent investors is branching out into a new area of service. The bank announced that it has introduced new capabilities to help parents and caregivers in mass-affluent families plan financially for the care of loved ones with special needs.

Most families want to plan financially for their children’s education and weddings, but for families with special needs children their focus is quite different, Alok Prasad, head of Merrill Edge, said in a telephone interview. The concerns of families with special needs children kept surfacing in conversations advisors were having with customers, he said.

That, on top of a U.S. Census Report showing that 21 million American families care for a family member with special needs, convinced Merrill Lynch to launch the service. 

“We felt it was appropriate to have this capability within Merrill Edge to help out a number of customers who are struggling to balance the latest need they have,” he said.

The new service gives Merrill Edge customers access to a team of financial advisors trained to understand the challenges facing families with children who have disabilities. These advisors earned the company’s proprietary Certified Special Needs Advisor professional designation in addition to completing the Merrill Lynch’s standard certification program, Prasad said. The team, which consists of approximately 30 special needs advisors, will expand over time as demand for the service grows, Prasad said.

In addition to advisors, the program offers an online calculator to help families analyze the financial resources required to support special needs individuals based on key financial information and projected life expectancy. Anyone can use the online tool to get a “sense for what the asset requirements would be” to plan financially for a special needs child, said Prasad. For more in-depth information, customers have access to an expanded version of the calculator that they can use with their advisors. Customers will not incur any incremental costs for using the new service, Prasad noted.

“We are confident that this is very beneficial to a number of our clients and will help them prepare for their long-term and their children’s long-term [financial needs],” he said.