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Here’s how a 9/11 widow brought her family back from the brink

  • Tragedy taught the lesson of having a financial plan.
  • Protecting assets created a future for her children.

It's been a long road for MaryEllen Salamone since Sept. 11, 2001.

The North Caldwell, New Jersey, mother of three and part-time nonprofit consultant was driving two of her children to preschool on that fateful morning when she heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City.

At the time, her husband, John, was in Tower Two, where he worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, a brokerage firm. He died in the attack.

Amid the horror, the widow faced a new, frightening reality.

A photo of the Salamone family in 1999
A photo of the Salamone family in 1999

"We had three kids," Salamone said. "They were six, four, and two at the time."

"They weren't going to have their dad; I wanted them to have a future," she said. "Where do I start?"

Overwhelming times

Though the Salamones had laid the groundwork for some of their long-term goals, including opening 529 college savings accounts for their three children, they never had a formal financial plan.

John didn't have a will when he died, which initially made it difficult for MaryEllen to access the money he had left behind. It's a lesson that remains with her to this day and one that she passes on to young families.

"It is so much more difficult for a family when the spouse passes away if there is not a will," Salamone said.

John had handled the family's finances. Without him, MaryEllen grappled with handling leftover assets and her husband's insurance proceeds. She also wanted to get her kids' lives as back to normal as was possible.

Everything changed when her neighbor Frank Astorino, president of the Astorino Financial Group in Fairfield, New Jersey, ran into her at her son's soccer practice in 2002. He had asked if he could help her coach and whether his son could also play.

"In the course of conversation, he says, 'I'm a financial planner,'" Salamone said. "I was like, wow. I actually need a financial planner."

Finding balance

Astorino drafted a plan to help Salamone generate income and address the family's long-term goals. He also helped her set up trusts for the children, using the proceeds from John's insurance policy.

Salamone's top priority was making the money last so the kids could get to college and have a normal childhood.

"We had to forego a bunch so that we could be ultra-conservative and protect the money so that there is money for the future," she said.

While the kids had vacations and family fun throughout their childhood, Salamone kept tight reins on her spending.

"I spent the money to make memories and shopped at Marshalls and Target so that we could protect the assets," she said.

Protect and preserve

That conservative attitude helped her get through the 2008 financial crisis. At that time, Astorino moved the family's investments out of stocks to protect their savings from the downturn.

"Working with Frank really helps because it's a reassurance," said Salamone. "He's able to illustrate even if the worst-case scenario happened, these are our strategies to make sure your assets are protected."

MaryEllen Salamone with her children Aidan (left), Anna and Alex and their dog Casey.
MaryEllen Salamone with her children Aidan (left), Anna and Alex and their dog Casey.

Salamone's oldest son, Alex, 22, recently graduated from college, while Aidan, 20, and Anna, 18, are currently attending Stanford University. As they get older, they will receive another gift from their father: the trust assets Salamone and Astorino have protected all this time.

"I think my measure of success was how OK were my kids going to be after everything that happened to them," Salamone said. "So now I could look back and say, 'We were pretty successful.'"