No one likes to think about the unthinkable. What would happen if…but once kids come into our lives, preparing for those “what ifs” and emergencies is a must.
“A lot of parents don’t know where to start,” says Pamela Maass, a Denver attorney also known as The Law Mother, and author of the upcoming book, Legally Ever After: The 6 Step Plan To Protect Your Children’s Future and Happiness. That, and limited access to legal assistance, are often the biggest hurdles when it comes to completing tasks that could ensure your family’s safety and security. For some of these tasks, an attorney specializing in estate planning will be the best starting point, but there are other tasks that you can complete, or at least begin, on your own.
Here’s a checklist of the important documents and plans that every parent should have in place.
Inventory of Assets
In Colorado alone, there is more than $54 million in unclaimed property. We’re not talking about grandma’s old furniture and Uncle Bob’s books, but rather, says Maass, money from unclaimed life insurance policies, retirement investments, bank accounts, and the like, that have been lost or forgotten. Ask yourself: If something were to happen to me, would my spouse (or trusted family or friend) be able to find all of my account information? To be sure your children will have access to those hard-earned funds, create an inventory of your valuable assets.
Where To Start: An attorney isn’t necessary to create this list, although if you are working with one on an estate plan, they often have a checklist of items to include. Begin by making a list of any bank or retirement accounts, insurance policies, and investments you and your spouse hold. Then, record important information for each, including account numbers, where policy information is stored, and any passwords.
Did you enroll in a retirement plan, life insurance policy, or investment account back in the days before you were married or had kids? If so, chances are your beneficiary—the person who receives any financial benefit in the event of your death—may still be your mom or dad. It’s time to make sure your beneficiary designations are up to date.
Where To Start: Remember that inventory of assets you are making? Take a moment to review the beneficiary for each account. If you can’t find your original enrollment forms, it may just be a matter of logging into your account portal and seeking out a beneficiary tab. Updating beneficiaries doesn’t cost a thing, so be sure to make updates anytime you have a life event, such as the birth of a child, a divorce, or marriage.
Short-term and Long-term Guardianship
We often think about who will care for children for the rest of their lives, should a parent die. Long-term guardianship is a necessary legal document to have in place. Maass also recommends designating short-term guardians. “Sometimes long-term guardians are family members who live far away, maybe in another state. Short-term guardians are people close by, like a neighbor or friend, who could care for kids until your long-term guardians can get there,” she says. Maass also recommends creating and carrying a wallet card that lists your child’s legal guardians, and sharing that information with designated guardians, as well as babysitters.
Where To Start: Guardianship designations need to be notarized legal documents. While downloadable DIY forms are available online, it is recommended that an attorney review them. Many issues can come up in completing this form that may not be obvious, says Maass. “An attorney will know the considerations and what-ifs.”
This guide lists anything from your child’s allergies or disabilities to favorite stuffies and daily routines. It’s also a great reference for babysitters or visiting family. While it’s not a legal document, it is a step you don’t want to skip. Maass thinks of it this way: “If someone were to come in tonight to take care of your kids, are there things that someone needs to know?” Little ones who can’t communicate their own needs will especially benefit from the loving notes left by the person who knows and loves them best.
Where To Start: Consider a day in the life of your child and begin there. Then add notes on their health, who is in their life—friends, teachers, coaches—and any of their favorite things. This is an entirely independent project—you are the only expert needed. It might also be helpful to set a reminder on your phone to update the guide as your child grows and changes.
Will and/or Trust
These legal documents outline your direct wishes for your assets and your family. Without this type of document, your estate—even if it’s modest—could be caught up in the legal system for years while courts determine what happens to your assets. Wills function differently than trusts, and there are different types of each, so this isn’t the time to do it alone.
Where To Start: Work with a professional advisor, such as an attorney, to ensure that your wishes are outlined properly. Trying to create a will or trust on your own is like diagnosing yourself on WebMD, says Maass. Professional guidance gives you the reassurance that things are truly done the way you want.
Special Needs Trust
Parents who have a child with a disability should also create a special needs trust; this document will ensure their child has the necessary financial resources and protection throughout their life.
Where to Start: Seek out an attorney who has special needs legal experience. There could be a number of factors that make this a more complicated trust. For instance, if a child with a disability is receiving government benefits, a financial gain from an inheritance could potentially knock them out of eligibility for those benefits. An attorney with experience in the special needs community will be equipped to navigate these specific considerations.
Family Emergency Communication Plan
If there was a disaster or an emergency, would your kids know how to reach you? We’ve become dependent on technology to keep track of our important contact numbers and information, but what if communication networks were down or electricity was unreliable? A family emergency communication plan gathers important phone numbers, email addresses, and meeting places in a printed format, and outlines a course of action for the family to reunite.
Where To Start: Visit ready.gov and redcross.com for helpful resources, including downloadable forms. No expert assistance is needed to complete this task, in fact, kids can help out! Ready.gov recommends putting printed versions of this plan in each child’s backpack, as well as sharing copies with close family members and a trusted friend.
One last thing Maass suggests parents put down on paper or video is what she calls a legacy interview. As part of her estate planning process, Maass asks clients to write a letter to their children, record their stories, leave their children advice, or document words of love that will pass on to their children in the event of the parent’s death. As your children learn more about the legal plans you made to protect them and their future, they will also have a personal reminder of your love. After all, she says, “They’re not going to cuddle up with estate planning documents. These are the things that you really want to pass along.”