Before having kids, my idea of a will was based on what I had seen in the movies. There was the dramatic “reading of the will” scene where someone is surprised by a huge inheritance or devastated by being left out. Then there were the movies where there is no will or where things go wrong and orphaned children get left to evil or inept aunts and uncles (think “James and the Giant Peach”), thrown into a heartless orphanage (“Annie”) or left to fend for themselves in a cruel world (“A Series of Unfortunate Events”).
Everyone knows the loving parents wanted better for their kids. But once they are gone how can parents reach out from beyond the grave to protect their children? Answer: a will.
When my kids were diagnosed with autism, updating my will was not the first thing that I thought of. It actually took me several years to get around to updating the will and establishing a special needs trust for each of them. But once I did, I felt a building pressure suddenly lift. My fear of death dramatically diminished — just like that.
The best advice I can give is talk to your own lawyer and financial advisor about your specific situation. But, to save yourself some high-priced, billable hours, here are a few things I learned when I was going through the process.
1. Educate yourself about your own estate planning needs.
For me, my will is all about my kids. This will probably be true for most people with young children. If you do have kids, sit down with your spouse, partner or whoever you want to allow to have input and make a list of the people you would want to be guardian for your children. Make another list of people you want to have financial control over the trust you will create for you kids, and who to designate as trustee.
Most people list their spouse or partner first for both financial and medical Power of Attorney, but in case your spouse pre-deceases you, or is incapacitated at the same time as you, you will want at least one more name on that list. These decisions can be hard to make. You may name your parents as guardians when your kids are 2 and 4 years old, but want to change it to your best friend when your kids are 12 and 14 years old.
Rest assured you can always change your will. It is better to have an estate plan that you will update periodically than no plan at all.
2. Learn about the estate planning of your spouse, parents and any extended family that could affect you or your children.
Because women tend to live longer, there is a far higher likelihood that they will be widowed. Men still typically outearn and outsave women during their earning years, so women are far more likely to outlive their own savings. Proper estate planning for you and your family is the best protection against a diminished standard of living in old age.
3. Special Circumstances.
If you have special circumstances like caregiving for someone with a disability, be sure to find a professional who specializes in that type of estate planning. Caregiving for a minor with special needs, or an adult child or sibling with special needs, means that you will need to establish a special needs trust for that individual to protect their Medicaid eligibility. Medicaid currently has a $2,000 asset cap, which means that if your loved one directly inherits any amount that puts them over the cap, they will lose their Medicaid benefits — and in some cases — they may even be forced to pay Medicaid back for past benefits.
Before meeting with an estate planning professional, gather together all relevant materials including past wills, life insurance, disability insurance, long-term care insurance, retirement accounts, investment accounts and any other asset documentation as well as any beneficiary forms that need to be updated. If you are creating a special needs trust, you will need to update all beneficiary forms with the trust information.
No one likes to think about their own death, but a little planning right now can make things immeasurably easier for your loved ones down the road. Give your family the gift of getting your estate planning together now to create financial clarity and security for the future.
*Jen Turrell is not a professional estate planner