One of the most common reasons that motivates someone to get a will is their children. However, one of the most common reasons couples put off estate planning is that they are not sure how to handle planning with children. Many individuals come to me without all the details figured out quite yet, and that is okay! Your attorney should help guide you through the decision making process for planning with minor children. Here are a two things you may want to think about before your first meeting:
1. Guardian for Minor Children. One of the most important and also most daunting tasks is selecting a guardian for your child(ren) if you and your spouse passed away. I have seen numerous families delay their estate planning because they were unable to agree on a guardian. To start the conversation, make a list of factors that are important to you and your spouse in a guardian, perhaps location, other children, etc. Try to keep an open mind and not think about a specific individual but rather qualities. Once you have your model guardian, then start to brainstorm potential family members or friends and begin to evaluate those ideas with your list in mind. This process may take several weeks or months to complete. If you establish a deadline you are much more likely to come to a decision. I often visit with couples who have been struggling with this issue for years but having a deadline, such as a meeting with their attorney, forces them to sit down and have what can be an uncomfortable conversation. Remember, you can always change your documents. Having something in place is much better than having nothing in place.
2. Trust for Minors. Once you have guardians established, it is time to start considering the financial assets you may leave your children. Minors, those under the age of 18, cannot inherit or own property directly. Without an estate plan or with a poorly drafted estate plan, families risk leaving control of their assets to a court or unknown individual. To avoid this, your estate plan should include a contingent trust for minors.
This trust will allow an individual of your choosing (a trustee) to manage the assets you leave to your children until they reach a defined age. The trustee does not have to be the same person as the guardian, although it can be. The age at which your child(ren) receives the assets outright is up to you. It is important to note that while you may not want your child(ren) to have outright control of the assets until say age 30, they can still have access to the assets for approved expenses. For example, if a child needs to pay their college tuition the trustee could either distribute that sum to the child or make the payment directly to the school. This ensures that needed expenses are paid for and youthful indiscretion with funds is limited. There are countless other options and techniques to achieve your specific goals for your child(ren)’s future if something happened to you. Even if you are not sure how you want to structure your plan yet, take the first step now.