As a parent, you know that life can change in an instant, and that’s why you take steps to minimize your children’s risk or exposure. You invest in the very best car seats, cabinet locks, helmets and other protective gear—all in the name of keeping your children safe. Yet the most important protection for a family in times of uncertainty isn’t something you purchase. Instead, it is protection in the form of an estate plan, the legal and financial strategies designed to make life as easy as possible if tragedy strikes.
Is your family protected, or have you used one of the following excuses?
- The chances of my spouse and I dying together are slim.
- My family knows my wishes. They will honor them if I’m not around.
- Everything is pretty straightforward as our estate is not complicated.
- There is plenty of time to take care of this.
- The process of naming guardians is challenging. We can’t agree on the right person.
The truth is that no matter how many assets you have or the size of your bank account, every parent of a minor child needs some type of an estate plan in place. Why? Because children are vulnerable. If you are not around to care for them (even temporarily due to an accident or illness), who will? Without legal documentation, it is risky to trust the courts to follow your wishes simply based on a family member’s comments.
Some people find estate planning difficult to think about, let alone do. But in reality, getting your affairs in order as a parent is empowering! You will be able to rest easier knowing that you have a solid legal foundation in place so your family can handle whatever challenges life may bring.
Is it time to get your ducks in a row? Get started with these steps:
1. Prepare your resources through estate planning.
It’s one thing to ask someone to raise your kids in your absence; it’s another thing for that person to take on the difficult burden of funding your children’s care. Fortunately, tools such as life insurance, savings accounts and other investment vehicles can be used to give your children the resources they need for the future. As with most insurance policies and investment accounts, the earlier you put a plan in place, the better. Select a trusted advisor and craft a plan that supports the future lifestyle you desire for your children.
2. Name legal guardians.
Legal guardians are the people whom you trust to care for your kids if you are unable to do so yourself. Every parent should name permanent guardians (those who would raise your kids if you pass away) and short-term guardians, those who could care for your kids in an emergency (e.g., you are injured in a car accident, you have surgery, or you want the school to release your kids when you can’t be there). It’s not enough to just tell someone your wishes for guardianship. If you don’t legally document your choice, the decision will ultimately rest with the courts.
Probate is something to avoid at all costs when minor children are involved. Probate is the court process to inventory and distribute your assets when you pass away. It’s expensive, time consuming and, worst of all, entirely public—which means every con artist in town will know just how much your kids stand to inherit and when. A living trust can help bypass this process and protect your children’s privacy during a sensitive time.
4. Put safeguards around their inheritance.
If you had inherited money at the age of 18, what would you have done with it? Saved it for school or to purchase a house or spent it quickly? Putting “speed bumps” around the distribution of an inheritance is a wise choice. Through a living trust, you can tie distribution to important milestones such as graduating from college, getting married or buying a home. Or you can specify that your children cannot receive the bulk of their inheritance until they are a specific age.
5. Plan for special needs children.
If you have a child who is disabled or has special needs, you’ll want to consider putting a supplemental needs trust in place. This allows your child to continue receiving important government benefits such as Social Security or Medi-Cal for health care while still enjoying your estate. It also allows other family members to leave money to your child without jeopardizing his or her benefits. When choosing legal guardians, make sure you select someone who truly understands your child’s needs and will stand by him or her through adulthood. Remember that this person will not only be the guardian of your child until they are 18, but also might need to be your child’s conservator (the person legally responsible for managing another’s affairs) into adulthood.
You can’t predict when serious illness, disability or other tragedies of life will strike. But you can make a plan. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it, but the peace of mind will be well worth the effort.
Nancy A. Chillag is an attorney and founder of Chillag & Associates, a Menlo Park law firm. With more than 30 years of legal experience, Nancy is also a certified public accountant, real estate broker, public speaker and author of the book Your Kids Are Counting on You!: An Easy-to-Understand Parent’s Guide to Estate Planning. For more information about Nancy, visit www.chillag.com.