Joe Tombs is currently completing the first year of a two-year term as President of the Society of Settlement Planners (SSP). SSP's 2017 Annual Conference is scheduled for March 1-3 in Las Vegas. As Tombs prepares for this event, he agreed to answer a few S2KM questions about SSP's current status and future direction. In a prior S2KM blog post, Tombs responded to the AIG Class Action Lawsuit - stating SSP is "neutral" and that SSP, as an association, has decided as a matter of policy to abandon taking any “political” positions.
S2KM: Joe, thank you for agreeing to this interview. To further clarify SSP's new "no political positions" policy, you have also stated that SSP is now neutral about single-claimant 468B Qualified Settlement Funds - one of the most contentious issues within the primary structured settlement market during the past several years. Just to confirm, are you saying the SSP, as an association, no longer supports and/or will no longer advocate for single-claimant 468B QSFs?
TOMBS: That is correct. Our refusal to take a position should not be misunderstood to imply anything about our individual members. The SSP has been a zealous advocate of the single-claimant QSF in the past and I doubt any of our members have changed their opinions on the subject. We are not asking our members to suppress or to modify their own beliefs.
S2KM: What about factoring which arguably represents the most divisive political issue within the structured settlement market? If SSP is neutral, how do you explain SSP's current membership policy which to use your own words "is open to anyone interested in comprehensive settlement planning as long as they are not engaged in factoring". Doesn't SSP's membership policy itself represent a "political position"?
TOMBS: The SSP does not have an opinion on factoring. Several years ago, we held a conference in which many participants from factoring companies attended and participated. Their presence at our meeting annoyed some SSP members and a special meeting of members was called to address this issue. At that meeting, the membership voted almost unanimously to close off new membership to those applicants who were active in the factoring industry. We also decided not to expel the very few of our members who had drifted into factoring. Our individual members' views on factoring are varied and generally quite negative, but the reason factoring representatives are excluded from membership centers on the fact that we want to focus on planning at the time of settlement. (Tombs' emphasis). My personal opinion is that there is nothing wrong with a person who ethically engages in factoring, but that the world would be a net better place if factoring did not exist.
S2KM: What do you consider to be your most significant accomplishments during your first term as SSP President?
TOMBS: Recognizing we still have more than six weeks left to achieve first year objectives, I am especially proud of four accomplishments: 1) SSP has substantially expanded its membership; 2) we have re-focused on professional settlement planning as our primary Mission and purpose; 3) we have pretty much put to bed the idea that we oppose the National Structured Settlement Trade Association (NSSTA); and 4) we have developed a new set of Professional Practice Standards which we will introduce during our 2017 Annual Conference.
S2KM: How large is SSP and where are you finding new members?
TOMBS: I anticipate we will meet our goal of having 300 members by the time of our 2017 Annual Meeting. Many of our new members are trust officers, financial planners, special needs trust attorneys and staff from settlement planning practices. The new face of the SSP is truly the new faces at the SSP and the different perspectives they bring are propelling us forward in an exciting new direction.
S2KM: Have structured settlement annuity providers supported the concept of "comprehensive settlement planning"? If not, why not?
TOMBS: I don't think most structured settlement annuity providers understand the significance of settlement planning - or how it differs and/or relates to structured settlements. They are just beginning to wake up to the concept and realize how important and how effective the settlement planning model can be. My experience has shown that whenever a plaintiff attorney sees and understands the settlement planning model, they will never again be satisfied with a structured settlement broker who only offers one product. Think about what happened to flip phone providers when smart phones hit the market. I predict the same thing will happen with settlement planning. If structured settlement annuity providers wait too long to transition, trust companies will have captured first mover advantage.
S2KM: At one time, the term "settlement planner" was viewed by many structured settlement stakeholders as an inflated synonym for "plaintiff broker". How would you differentiate a professional settlement planner from a structured settlement consultant?
TOMBS: Until recently, that view was entirely accurate. A plaintiff broker would simply order new business cards with the new title ("Settlement Planner") proudly displayed. Today, however, that transition creates changes in expectations, applicable standards of care, and required levels of disclosure. A structured settlement consultant approaches an engagement with a product in mind. By comparison, a settlement planner (with access to multiple products) first gathers information about the goals of the injury victims and his/her family, analyzes the data, works out a written plan, and implements the plan. A settlement planner does not play the role of a structured settlement broker, if at all, until the last step.
S2KM: What is a "comprehensive settlement plan" and how does it differ from a "structured settlement"?
TOMBS: A structured settlement is a product. A "comprehensive settlement plan" is a blueprint. It is a written document that contains a summary of the detailed analysis of the client's situation, capacities, goals, priorities, needs, and resources - and the strategies and products that will best help that client use the settlement proceeds to successfully transition into a post-settlement life in a way that allows them to accomplish their highest priority goals. The settlement planner uses the plan to guide the injury victim through the settlement process. Many of my settlement plans do not include structured settlements, but most do.
S2KM: What role(s) do you see for structured settlement annuities in settlement planning?
TOMBS: Structured settlements provide tax-free guaranteed cash flows that can be matched to the exact time that the cash flow is projected to be needed. It is a valuable tool in a settlement planner's toolbox. Carpenters love their hammers, but I would never hire a carpenter who showed up to work with only a hammer.
S2KM: What is SSP's current relationship with NSSTA and what would you like it to be?
TOMBS: Most of the SSP members who produce structured settlements are also members of NSSTA. The SSP's past opposition to a few of NSSTA's political positions has frayed the relationship despite great strides to mend the fences by both sides. Today, the SSP leadership fully supports NSSTA and its Mission to preserve and protect structured settlements. I believe the two organizations are symbiotic - if one does better, so does the other.
S2KM: How are SSP and NSSTA different from SSP's perspective? Do we need two associations or should their efforts be combined?
TOMBS: SSP and NSSTA are two very different organizations with completely different Missions. We share a common ancestry, but we have evolved into separate species. The difference, which is evident in our names, is not subtle, semantic, or political. Today, most of our members, sponsors and seminar attendees do not even sell structured settlement annuities. Let that fact settle in for a minute and you will begin to comprehend the extent to which the SSP and settlement planning have evolved.
S2KM: What is the scope of SSP's new "Professional Practice Standards"? Will they Replace SSP's current "Standards of Professional Conduct"? If not, how are they different?
TOMBS: At our 2017 Annual Meeting, we will announce and release practice standards that will define settlement planning and authoritatively set out the scope of the practice of settlement planning. Don't expect something complicated. SSP's Professional Practice Standards will be simple, profound statements. They will be different from a Code of Ethics or our Code of Professional Conduct. Our current Code of Professional Conduct is too structured settlement centric and is currently under review by an SSP committee. I suspect it will receive major modifications soon.
S2KM: What is the current status of the Registered Settlement Planner (RSP) Program? How many professionals currently possess the RSP designation?
TOMBS: The RSP designation is administered by a separate Board. The number of RSP designees is small - probably just over twenty. The program was dormant for a long time and has now been freshly updated with several students enrolled.
S2KM: Looking ahead to your second term as SSP President, what are SSP's greatest challenges?
TOMBS: We can't grow the number of professional settlement planners fast enough to keep up with market demand. This forces us to focus on two goals - increasing our membership and increasing the professionalism of our craft. We are making progress on both fronts, but we simply cannot go far enough or fast enough to meet the demand. Another great challenge is that we face resistance from entrenched businesses that actively try to slow us down to allow them to catch up.
S2KM: Joe, thank you for taking time to participate in this interview. Congratulations for your progress with SSP and best of luck for another outstanding SSP educational conference March 1-3 in Las Vegas.