Estate Planning is Needed for All the Stages of Your Children's Lives
One of the hardest decisions a parent faces is thinking about who would care for their children if they were unable to. In fact, the decision is so difficult, many people avoid it altogether. Although this reaction is understandable, it leaves children at risk and their surviving loved ones with extra fear and uncertainty about how to gain control to care for the children. First, it is important to recognize that there is no solution for your children that is as good as you being alive and well to care for them. When we plan for young children, it can be helpful to let go of the idea that the plan you are creating needs to be perfect or ideal. It is already *not* ideal if you are not around to care for your children! We are really looking to avoid the worst case scenarios, and to identify a plan that allows the most caring and responsible people to intervene. In the movie, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, three children try to survive the scheming characters and wild events that ensue after their parents death. One of them asks innocently, "Didn't mom and dad have a plan for us?" As an estate planning attorney, it was THAT line that made me finally get my own plan for my children in order.
As They Grow
Particularly with young children, an estate plan is not a "one and done" event. Things will change. Planning for who can care for an infant is different that planning who will care for a 16 year old. With an infant, you may want to designate a family member who can devote their life to the child, even if they live far away from your current home. With a 16 year old, it may be more important to help them maintain their current school and social life. The people you designate may also have life changes, and this can require updating your documents. As potential caretakers move, get divorced, have families, illnesses or financial struggles of their own, you may need to review and update your plan.
In addition to designating who will physically care for your children, you also need to designate who will care for their property as well. Sometimes this is the same individual, and sometimes parents choose to designate someone different than the guardian of the person to care for the child's property. This plan will also need to be periodically reviewed. Your assets will likely change over time, and you may need different legal tools to provide for the care of these additional assets.
When a child turns 18, and often when they are heading off to college, parents are busy thinking about all the new life changes: new car, setting up a dorm room or new household, establishing bank accounts and all the other details that come with #adulting. This transition to adulthood comes with an important legal effect: as an adult, your child is no longer a minor and has an independent right to privacy. You are no longer entitled to their health care information, and if they are in an accident or hospitalized you cannot, as their parent, automatically make health care decisions or receive information about them, and you cannot handle their financial and practical affairs. At the same time, because they are often active socially with peers and the brains of all people ages 18-25 are still developing to maturity, accidents, health events and other difficulties are not uncommon. For this reason, it is very important for young adults to establish advance health care directives and a power of attorney that allows their parents or a trusted individual of their choosing to help them in the event they become incapacitated.