Featured Organization – By Their Side

My intent is to feature one organization per month, however I did not publish any in January or February; so there will be one more in March. Taken from their web site ” By Their Side works with Marylanders with intellectual/developmental disabilities and their families to make sure their wishes are addressed and provides advocacy for health, safety, happiness, and rights even when their parents can no longer be there.” I have not found an organization who delivers this service outside of Maryland (not to say they don’t exist – I just haven’t found them yet).

Who They Are

        By Their Side was started in 1965, under the name Maryland Retardate Trust, as a charitable trust with the Arc Maryland, to have volunteers make visits to sons and daughters of parents who made a will provision for enrollment. Over the years the program has undergone several revisions; in 1984 the first updates were made. For the first time paid professional advocates would complete annual assessments; families could contract and direct their advocacy services; families could now provide background information about the individual receiving services to present a more complete picture; and each family paid a fee to join – ensuring the continued financial health of the organization and ability to keep its promise.

In 1992 the program required families to establish funding for services through trusts, will provisions or insurance. Because it’s a family-funded service it’s funding is not affected by the shifting priorities of the State. In 2003 the organization became a 501(c)3 charitable nonprofit, no longer functioning as a charitable trust. In 2007 its Board of Directors changed the name to By Their Side, Inc. They continue to provide families an answer to the question: “When we are gone, who will be by their side?”

What They Do

Three words – advocacy and oversight. When a family joins, they are interviewed to determine the individual and family’s preferences and advocacy needs. They are assigned a personal advocate, many of have backgrounds in service coordination and/or social work and have on average 20 years of experience; who will make assessment visits at the frequency agreed upon by the sponsor and follow up as required should there be any identified concerns. 

By Their Side advocates are not guardians or trustees, although they work closely with each to ensure their clients lead as fulfilling lives as possible. They serve as resources for siblings, and can provide either short or long term assistance. By Their Side offers a variety of service plans the family can choose from.

What Else Should I Know

This is NOT, nor should it be, a free service! These plans are funded by the families – this is not a service provided by DDA or any other State agency. Every applicant is voted on by the Board of Directors, and applications can be found on their web site (provided above).

By Their Side advocates truly have the individuals’ best interests in mind. Unlike service coordinators who may have 60+ clients to keep track of, an advocate with By Their Side typically has between 10 – 15 clients to support; allowing a much more personal and personable approach. By Their Side is a GREAT resource for parents and/or siblings with questions regarding estate planning, service referrals, etc…


I am not an employee of the  By Their Side, and any errors noted are my own. If I have misrepresented, or misstated anything please provide constructive feedback so I may make the appropriate change(s). I will be posting about at least one organization a month, using information and notes I took when I met with them – as well as additional research I completed online. All opinions and views are my own.


You’re not Entitled, get over yourself

Over the last few years, since I’ve retired from the Navy, my eyes have been opened to what it means (seemingly) to be a civilian. People of all walks of life, with all ranges of abilities, seem to feel like they are owed something. I’m not sure where this comes from, or how it perpetuates, but it saddens me. Rather than working to make their lives better, or perish the thought, helping somebody else improve their situation; they wait and wait for somebody to give them a handout. If this doesn’t apply to you – stop reading; or continue and help me find ways to fix it. : )

I’m a retired, disabled vet – I feel I’ve earned the benefits I receive from the VA. I’m grateful for programs like Yellow Ribbon, but I recognize I’m not owed this. The same goes for getting discounts at stores. There is nothing written anywhere that a store needs to provide an Active Duty member or veteran any type of discount. If they do – great. But if they don’t I wouldn’t say that automatically makes them “unpatriotic” or whatever else you want to call them. The whole point of going into business is to make money, not provide charity (unless you’re a non-profit). You have no idea what cause(s) the business owner supports, or what reasons they have for doing/not doing something. If you care that much about your discount – inquire within (politely & professionally); but they don’t owe you an answer so don’t be upset if you’re shown the door.

The same goes for this push to employ Veterans. I think it’s awesome, but I think we are deluding ourselves if we believe this going to be the status quo indefinitely. Active Duty military (and veterans) need to think about life post-service – what makes them marketable. What jobs have they done in the military that will translate into something an employer is willing to pay for. Think about your soft skills – conflict resolution, communication skills, etc… Leverage these on your resume and interviews. Most importantly – don’t hesitate to network with those who have never served. Will they “get” you, maybe not – but who cares?! They’ll pay you, and at the end of the day that’s why you’re talking to them in the first place, right?

I can also relate to families with Special Needs. Here I’m willing to soften my stance a bit, because more needs to be done to manage their expectations. When a child is diagnosed with a disability typically the school system provides a LOT of support. The family is ENTITLED to this support, it’s their right. However, this entitlement STOPS when the child leaves High School – through graduation or aging out at 21. Here is where I find families getting themselves into a bind.

They’ve grown so used to being able to turn to somebody for services or answers they’ve grown to expect it. When their child becomes an adult they want the same treatment, but that’s not how our system works. I do my best, and I think schools could/should do a much better job, to educate families about what happens when their child leaves school. DDA and support organizations will screen the individual, and provide services based upon need and the resources they have. These resources are finite, they come from our tax dollars; so it’s very likely you will not get everything you think you need/deserve.

Parents, relatives, loved ones and friends need to be proactive and think about life after school. What can they do now to help their child have a successful transition. This probably means they will need to start working on it before the school comes to them and says let’s discuss transition. Yes, the school is required to help families with the transition process, but this is your child and nobody is going to care as much as you do. Leverage the schools, but do your own homework. Network with families that have made the transition, often  you can learn more from somebody with a not so successful story than you can from somebody who had everything fall into place.

Yes, there are people who have entitlements, and should absolutely do everything in their power to get what they deserve. Organizations like the DAV and VFW are phenomenal resources for veterans, and cost nothing – you don’t need to be a member to be helped. In many other cases you will need to do some research. Maybe it means hiring an attorney to take your case – good attorneys will let you know ahead of time whether you have a case or not. At the end of the day though, you are the one being affected – so whether you’re entitled or not it’s in your best interest to plan for the worst case scenario.


Organizational Spotlight – Imagination Stage

Imagination Stage

One of my goals since retiring from the Navy was to identify what resources are available for families like mine – veterans and/or family members with Special Needs. Over the last several years I’ve met with many amazing organizations and have had my socks blown off more times than I can count. Now I’d like to help raise awareness, get the word about the organizations out so they can have the most impact and less families have to wonder “what is available to me?” I’m starting with a local theatre company, based in Bethesda – Imagination Stage. My hope is to whet the readers’ appetite enough for them to follow up and see if it’s a fit.

Who They Are

As an organization they started in 1979, under the name Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts (BAPA). In 2001 they rebranded themselves in anticipation of moving to its downtown Bethesda theatre arts center. The purpose was to meet the need of arts education for young people – a purpose they continue to fulfill to this day!

 What They Do

Here is a snapshot of just some of the things Imagination Stage offers. Sensory friendly performances – in addition to lighting and sound considerations, they allow families to meet actors prior to the performance; so the families understand and feel welcome. Of note – Imagination Stage commissions new works for children every year! Camps are offered all year round, from acting to videography – in an inclusive setting based upon age. Outreach to DC and MD public schools, bringing art programs to areas that may otherwise go without.

What Else Should I Know

This will be far from all-inclusive, but here are some things to consider. They offer needs-based scholarships. Now keep in mind, they are a non-profit – so the scholarships are going to be dependent upon availability. There are education mentors available for all ages, these are dedicated teaching artists waiting to assist parents and caregivers in finding the best class and course of study for each child. During the Fall & Spring semesters there are “audits”, opportunities for as long as 2 weeks allowing your child to try a class to determine if its a good fit.

Imagination Stage isn’t just one theater; they have the Lerner Theatre and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Theatre. The Lerner theater (larger) has a sound proof room if your child is upset; and is where the majority of productions are held. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Theatre is a smaller, more intimate setting – used for Imagination Stage’s signature program for 2 – 4 year olds.


I am not an employee of the Imagination Stage, and any errors noted are my own. If I have misrepresented, or misstated anything please provide constructive feedback so I may make the appropriate change(s). I will be posting about at least one organization a month, using information and notes I took when I met with them – as well as additional research I completed online. All opinions and views are my own.

Pension Maximization


You may hear, or have been told, to take advantage of something called “pension maximization” – especially if you’re a Federal employee. So what does this mean?

Traditionally those receiving pensions have the option to take a reduced benefit to provide a continuing benefit for a surviving spouse and/or family member. Pension maximization involves purchasing a life insurance policy to provide the same income benefits, and allowing the retiree to receive the full pension benefit – secure in the knowledge their spouse or loved one would be provided for after they’re gone.

If this was the only consideration I would have nothing to write about – because in many cases this will make the most fiscal sense. However, the retiree needs to be sure they understand if and how this could affect their spouse and/or loved ones’ continued healthcare benefit. In many cases, Federal employees being an example, in order to continue receiving health care benefits there is a minimum transfer requirement – meaning the retiree must take a reduced benefit of some type. How much will depend on the plan, and warrants a discussion with your advisor/planner.

This doesn’t rule out pension maximization; it should, however, spark a discussion around alternatives. Perhaps insurance is still a more cost effective option, adding additional death benefit to bridge the gap created by the loss of the health insurance coverage. Maybe it’s a better idea to do a hybrid solution – reduce the pension by the minimum amount required to keep the health insurance, purchasing life insurance to make up the difference. Or you may decide it doesn’t make sense to get the insurance – based upon a cost/benefit analysis. There is no cookie cutter solution, everybody’s situation is different – the common denominator is taking the time to understand what fits your situation best.

It’s up to you to understand what your benefits are. There are many advisors/planners who can/will help you, and your HR department is another resource. Beware those who attempt to sell you on this idea without explaining the pros/cons; and working with you to determine which solution best fits your solution.

Survivor Benefit Plan – Should I Take It?

Retirement PhotoOne of the biggest choices retiring service members face is whether to take the Survivor Benefit Annuity or not. Unfortunately, it’s also a topic that many of us don’t even think about until it comes time for us to make the decision. There is no easy, cookie cutter answer for who should, or should not, sign up for the Survivor Benefit Plan; but there are several items to weigh when making the decision – and I will touch on many of them in the below paragraphs.

What is Survivor Benefit Plan?  

First – what is the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), what does it do? SBP is an annuity – it will provide a surviving beneficiary with a fixed income stream. Beneficiaries can be a spouse (same-sex marriages are recognized); former spouse; children; or a natural interest person (individual like a brother, sister or child beyond eligibility for child coverage). If you do not have any beneficiaries you can choose not to take coverage at retirement, but let your personnel office know you do not have any beneficiaries. Each beneficiary has its own guidelines, and if you choose not to elect your spouse his/her notarized signature will be required. Children with a disability which existed before their 18th birthday, or which was incurred before age 22 while child was pursuing a full-time course of study are eligible for their entire lives.

Annuities cost money – you are paying into an account with an insurance company, who will pay a defined benefit to your family when you die. In most cases the cost is capped at 6.5% of the elected level of coverage (natural interest person cost can be up to 10% of gross pay). The benefit received can be up to 55% of a retiree’s pension. Please note  – Active Duty service members are covered as well, but they don’t have to pay into it. Should an Active Duty member die while on active duty, their beneficiary may be eligible for up to 55% of their base pay (does not include allowances for housing or food, or any additional pays).

Let’s review an example: a retiree’s pension is $3,000 (pre-tax) each month. They want to provide their spouse with the maximum benefit, 55% ($1,650/mth). In order to provide their spouse with $1,650/mth until the spouse passes $195/mth will be deducted from their pension (pre-tax) until the retiree turns 70. So one consideration if you want your spouse to receive income after your gone is: “how much insurance do I need to provide the same benefit for x number of years, and how much will that cost?”

Insurance vs. SBP

For some people, SBP may not make sense – if they live to be 80 and their spouse passes away at 84, they lose out. On the other hand, if they pass away at 40, and their spouse lives to be 84, that income could be a significant help – especially with young children. In my opinion it’s a no-brainer if, and only if, a family has a child with Special Needs. The child in most cases will outlive both parents, the benefit received will not be affected by Social Security; and now that you can make a Special Needs Trust the beneficiary SBP will not affect SSI. The decision to own any additional life insurance can then be made.

There are a couple advantages of insurance vs SBP. It can cost a lot less for the same benefit. If you cancel an insurance policy, as long as you are still insurable you can get another one later in life. You can control how to receive the benefit – lump sum, annuity, etc…

On the flip side of the coin, there are benefits of SBP over insurance. You do not have to be underwritten (you cannot be denied coverage) and its cost is not age based. SBP premiums come out pre-tax, lowering your taxable income. It can come out of your pension – so you never “feel” it. There’s no risk of missing a payment and having it cancelled. There is a cost of living adjustment, it keeps up with inflation.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day what matters is what do YOU and your spouse want to do? Is it important to leave an income stream behind when you die? Very few of us know what our expiration date is, and this is another hedge in our favor. This is a conversation I think families should have throughout their military careers; not put on a shelf until retirement. Do your due diligence, what will it provide – and at what cost? What has more impact – the loss of $200 – $300/mth in retirement; or the loss of $1,500 – $2,500/mth for your spouse and children when you die?