Settlement Co. Offers Sex Abuse Survivors New Trust Option

By Sarah Martinson | November 22, 2020, 8:02 PM EST

While working with survivors of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, a New York-based associate at a settlement management company realized that these clients needed a different option for managing their settlements. So he spearheaded an account designed for them.

Sam Dolce, an associate at Milestone Consulting LLC, gives most of the credit for the conception of The Settlement Account, a newly established national trust fund dedicated to sexual abuse survivors, to Andrus Wagstaff PC attorney Kimberly Dougherty. Dougherty represented women Dolce worked with who were sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics team doctor and Michigan State University professor Larry Nassar.

Dougherty was concerned about her clients' settlement money being taxed away while they decided what they wanted to do with the funds, Dolce said. Milestone set up a qualified settlement account, which is tax-free, for them so they could take as much time as they needed to decide. Qualified settlement accounts, however, can cost tens of thousands of dollars to establish, and some sexual abuse survivors only receive a few thousand dollars for their injuries, making such accounts cost-prohibitive for them, he said.

That's where The Settlement Account comes in. Survivors would have to pay, at most, a $750 joiner's fee for the account and would get access to all the financial planning resources that they would from a qualified settlement account at a lower cost, Dolce said, noting that survivors should be able to start joining the account this month pending approval from a New York county court. 

"You receive this money as compensation for your injury, and you should be able to use these funds to return you to whole," he said.

Having access to financial planning resources is crucial for sexual abuse survivors because they often need extra help planning what to do with their funds. Many are dealing with substance abuse, homelessness and unemployment due to their trauma, Dolce said.

Sara Craig, a Levin Simes Abrams LLP personal injury attorney who has helped clients set up settlement accounts with Milestone, said survivors are often so focused on their trauma and getting justice in their cases that monetary compensation is the last thing they're thinking about.

Therefore, the benefit of The Settlement Account for survivors is that it gives them time to process their trauma and figure out how to use their settlement money to move forward, she said.

"They may not be ready to go back to school or go back to work, so they need a little extra time and space to figure out what their options are, and to make a plan to ensure that their recovery is a safe one, and an appropriate one, and one that is going to give them long-lasting benefit through the rest of their life," Craig said.

Another benefit of The Settlement Account, discreetly named to provide privacy to its recipients, is that sexual abuse survivors will work with financial consultants who are trained to be mindful of the trauma their clients have experienced while helping them plan how to use their money to achieve their goals, Dolce said.

Milestone's settlement advisers receive ongoing trauma care training from Dr. Laura McGuire, the CEO of the National Center for Equity and Agency, a consulting firm that provides a trauma training certification program for legal professionals.

If a financial adviser flat-out asks a survivor how they received their settlement money, forcing the survivor to relive their trauma, that can be re-traumatizing, Dolce said. McGuire teaches Milestone's advisers how to avoid those scenarios, he said.

McGuire said that in NCEA's trauma training program for Milestone's advisers, the advisers have been provided with foundational knowledge about how trauma affects the brain and body.

The advisers have been taught that survivors may get easily upset or offended, or cry over having too many options, and the advisers are trained to not take these reactions personally but also to not ignore them, McGuire said.

"Ultimately, trauma-informed care, especially in the legal field, is really about increasing emotional intelligence, and how to better communicate with people in a way that supports their emotional well-being," she said.

Dolce said the trauma care training is important because sexual abuse survivors are not like other clients seeking investment advice, even in the broader realm of personal injury settlements.

Sexual abuse survivors may be very young and may have never given thought to their financial future, or they may be unemployed as a result of the trauma that they experienced, Dolce said. Individuals who receive settlements from a workplace injury are typically older and already have financial goals, he said.

Craig said trauma training for financial settlement advisers is important for helping survivors because the job of a financial adviser is to tell their client what to do with their money, but survivors need to feel in control of their decisions.

"What I value about things like The Settlement Account is the client is in charge," she said, and for survivors, "having that control back in their hands, being back in the driver's seat, is really important for them being able to continue to process and heal."

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Aaron Pelc

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