Build a legal family plan to protect your children.
Do you ever think about what would happen to your kids if something happened to you and you were no longer around to take care of them? There are things you can do to protect them in that devastating circumstance.
No parent likes to think about it, but putting a legal plan in place for your family is incredibly important to protecting your children. While the idea of estate planning can be daunting, learning what you need to put in place – and why – is a good way to get started. Below is a list of four key legal documents that can protect your kids from a world full of trouble if something happened to you.
1. Will with Guardianship Designation. Most people know that a will directs who would receive your assets upon your death. When you have young children, however, the most important part of your will is often the provision that designates a guardian – the person who would be granted legal custody of your kids if neither parent were alive.
In the absence of guardianship designation in a will, a court would appoint a guardian without any input from you – and it might not be a person you would want to raise your kids. In the worst case scenario, family members could disagree on who would take custody of the child, and the court could send your children into foster care in the meantime. While rare, it does happen.
2. Trust. While many parents view trusts as tools of the ultra-wealthy, a trust can provide many important benefits for families with even modest assets. Children under the age of 18 aren't legally capable of managing assets, so any inheritance they receive must be overseen by a court. Under this arrangement, detailed information about how much money is being held for your child, how it is invested, and how it is being spent is generally a matter of public record.
Leaving assets directly to your children has several other drawbacks as well. If you have more than one child, assets left to your children are divided equally among them, and assets allocated to one child cannot be used for the benefit of one of your other children. This arrangement can be disastrous if one child is injured or develops a serious illness, requiring additional financial support.
Finally, few parents would entrust an 18-year-old with a substantial amount of money, but that is exactly what can happen if assets are left to children outright. Access to an inheritance at a young age can result in bad spending habits and a poor work ethic, sometimes doing more harm than good. A trust keeps matters of your child's inheritance private and out of the public record. It allows you to appoint a trustee to administer the assets until your child reaches an age that you specify. If you have more than one child, the trustee can have discretion to allocate assets according to each child's need, allowing for adjustments for unexpected medical or therapeutic expenses.
3. Temporary Guardianship Designation. A Standby Guardianship Designation, as a temporary guardian is called in New York, allows a designated person to act as guardian for your child in the event you are incapacitated. A temporary guardian can also serve to bridge the gap between the time a parent passes away and the time a guardian is formally appointed by a court.
Without legal authority, even a close relative is not authorized to enroll your child in school or authorize medical treatment. Nor are they technically authorized to care for your child, leaving the child open to being temporarily placed in state custody.
4. Power of Attorney. A Power of Attorney designates a trusted friend or family member to manage your affairs in the event you become incapacitated. The Power of Attorney allows your designated agent to take immediate action to manage your finances, ensuring that money is available to take care of important family expenses, such as your mortgage, utility bills, groceries, and childcare.
Estate planning can seem daunting – and even downright frightening – to parents with young children. No parent likes to think about what would befall their children if the parents weren't there to take care of them. However, making sure your kids would be safe even in your absence is one of the best things you can do to protect them.
Shannon P. McNulty is an estate planning attorney in New York City. She is also the founder of Savvy-Parents.com, an online resource for parents about legal and financial planning.
Photography by Jonica Moore Studio for Well Rounded.