CONSIDER THIS: According to a Caring.com survey, only 42 percent of adults in this country have estate planning documents such as a will or living trust. These documents formally address distribution of assets, and for parents, wills and trusts outline directives for the care and custody of their children. And letting the people you want to take care of your children know your wishes and communicating your intentions to the state via legally recorded documents is important.
What many people don’t realize is that simply stating their wishes to family members and friends is not enough. Without a will or trust, the state takes on the responsibility of dictating the disposition of any property and the care of any children. People also sometimes think they don’t have enough assets to warrant the trouble and cost of a will or trust. That’s not necessarily true. And most people still would rather make the decision of what happens to their assets than the government.
Life insurance is the other significant tool for preserving assets and protecting family members. People’s aversion to thinking about their own deaths, plus the cost of premiums, are the main factors more people do not have life insurance. But if a family is financially dependent on a paycheck that is no longer going to be available, insurance should be viewed as a necessary expense. And the minimal policies offered by some employers, while helpful, won’t see a family through for very long.
According to the 2017 Insurance Barometer Study, insufficient coverage can have grave consequences for families, with four in 10 households having immediate trouble paying living expenses if their primary wage earner died.
Two things people don’t like to talk about are money and death. However, having those uncomfortable conversations can ensure peace of mind for your loved ones after you are gone. Even people without a lot of assets or a complicated financial picture should still follow these basic guidelines to protect their children’s interests:
Designate first responders. These are the people who will go to your children in a time of crisis. Make sure they have the appropriate documentation to establish their clear legal authority to care for your kids. This will ensure your children will go directly into the care of an adult of your choosing rather than into the foster care system until the courts determine who should have guardianship.
Define guardians for long-term care. Parents can agree upon guardians for their children, and even verbally communicate their wishes to their families. But if those intentions are not communicated in a legally binding written document, every family member would have equal priority of guardianship, and again, the courts will be the final say in who raises the children. This legal documentation is especially important if you choose a friend, rather than a family member, as a guardian.
Make sure the designated guardians know how you want your children raised. What educational, spiritual and cultural path do you want them to take? The only way to ensure your children are raised with the values you would have instilled in them yourself is to make those values clear to the guardians you’ve chosen.
Document your plan, regardless of your assets. If you have any assets at all (and keep in mind, your house and any life insurance policy from your work are assets), you’ll want to make sure the right thing happens to those assets—and to your children—in the event of your death. So if you don’t yet have a will or trust, get one. Simple estate planning can be done with online legal document services, but it’s still wise to speak to an attorney.
Determine whether savings or insurance is your best vehicle to meet specific scenarios and how much of each you will need. It is also important to ensure you take the time to document these plans through such documents as wills and trusts, ensuring that beneficiaries and payable-on-death designations are up-to-date on accounts and life insurance policies. Finally, share all this information with those who need to know.