Does talk of wills, power of attorney, guardianship, and trusts make you nervous? Relax – getting your legal affairs in order to ensure you have planned for the future needs of your children in case of an unforeseen accident isn’t as confusing as you think. Attorney Candice N. Aiston, Esq., who works with families to plan for prosperity and protect their loved ones, is here to explain the documents that can save surviving family members, particularly children, major legal troubles in the event of your untimely passing. So take a deep breath and envision the world you could leave behind – it’s the first step to preparing your family for whatever the future may hold.
Tranquil Parent: What are the most important legal documents for parents to have in place to care for their family?
Candice: There are three documents that are absolutely essential for all families:
- Will: Every parent should have a will that appoints a guardian and an alternate guardian. As a mother, I cannot imagine that while dealing with the sadness of losing their parents, my kids would be placed in foster care while a court decides where they should live. The right attorney will help you to set up a Guardianship Plan and assist the appointed guardians in legalizing the guardianship should it ever be necessary.
- Advance Directive (Healthcare Proxy or Living Will, in some states): This is the document that spells out your wishes regarding illness and death. You can appoint a Representative or Agent to carry out your wishes. Remember Terri Schiavo? Her case would not have dragged on for all those years if she had put her wishes in writing. This is especially important if you want your agent to be someone who is not your legal spouse.
- Durable Power of Attorney: This document allows the person that you designate to have access to your finances in the event that you are seriously incapacitated or injured. This is really important if your child’s guardian will need immediate access to funds in order to care for the child. It also makes things easier when a spouse needs to access funds in the event of the other spouse’s incapacitating illness or injury.
Some families should have a trust, depending on your family situation and value of assets. It can save you a lot of time and money by avoiding probate, which can be very costly.
Tranquil Parent: What can parents do to make sure their kids are cared for in the way that they would want?
Candice: There are four different ways that parents can make sure their kids are taken care of, should the unthinkable happen.
Choose the right guardian. You should sit down with your partner/spouse and discuss the following questions:
- Does the person like your kids?
- Do your kids like the person?
- Do you have similar parenting styles?
- Do you have similar values?
- Do they have sufficient financial resources?
- Is the person financially responsible?
- Is the person’s location satisfactory?
- Is the person in good health?
Make sure that you have a financial plan. This is usually done by purchasing life insurance. For a small investment each month, you can provide for your family for life. The last I checked, you can get a $1 million policy for under $100 per month. Look at what it costs to raise your kids and the things you want to provide, such as college or a wedding fund. Consider whether one parent would need to pay for childcare if the other parent passed away or if you would want to pay off your mortgage with the proceeds.
Have a proper Guardianship Plan. This means more than just appointing a guardian in your will. My office draws up a Guardianship Plan for our clients and sends letters to every guardian named so that everyone knows what to do in the event of an emergency. We even give our clients emergency cards to carry in their wallets, so that authorities are alerted that you have children and who they should call to pick up the children. Guardians are told that they should contact my office in so that we can carry out the legal steps necessary to make the guardianship official.
Write Life Letters™. Life Letters™ are letters that you write to your guardians and to your children in order to guide them through life. I encourage clients to keep a journal with their Estate Planning Binder with these letters written in them. It’s a good idea to use the first few pages to think about the immediate things that the guardians should know. Does your child have allergies? Is there a specific thing that the guardian can do or say to comfort your child? Put that right in the beginning. Then, consider all of your values and all of the hopes and dreams that you have or your children and start writing them down for the guardian and for your children.
While no parent wants to dwell on the thought of a tragic accident or illness, think about the peace of mind you will have with these choices made and fundamental documents in place. Make a New Year’s resolution to begin the process or refine your current will today.