As you spend time with your children and grandchildren during the lazy days of summer, it is a good time to think about your estate plan, and whether it is structured in a way that takes care of your family. Here are a few ways a good estate plan can protect and provide for your children:
- Protect the inheritance you leave your children. If you pass away before your children are mature or experienced enough to responsibly manage the assets they inherit from you, those assets may very well be lost to your children’s creditors or poor judgment. Some risks to a child’s inheritance include substance abuse, persistent friends in need of money, failed marriages, bankruptcy, irresponsible spending and lawsuits. A Trust can hold your child’s inheritance and name a Trustee to manage and protect those funds for your child. The Trustee can use the Trust assets for your child’s benefit for reasons the Trustee determines are appropriate, or for reasons you specify in the Trust. These could include making sure your child can pay tuition, pay for a wedding, buy a home, or start a business. The Trustee can manage the assets for your child’s lifetime or for a specific period of time (for example, until age 35).
- Protect a disabled child’s benefits. If you have a child that receives needs-based government benefits because of a disability, or may need those benefits in the future, your estate plan should include a trust for the benefit of your child. A supplemental needs trust that receives and manages the assets your child inherits will allow those assets to be used for the benefit of the child throughout the child’s lifetime, but will not disqualify the child from receiving any needs-based benefits the child may now or in the future be eligible to receive. A Trust can also be used to hold the child’s own assets in order to protect those assets and facilitate eligibility for benefits. If you have other family members who want to leave assets for the benefit of a disabled child, make sure they understand that proper planning is important to ensure that inherited assets will not affect the child’s eligibility for benefits.
- Ensure future vacations at the family vacation home. For children young and old, the family vacation home is a special place that parents often want to pass on to future generations. Careful planning can ensure that long-term care costs and estate taxes do not get in the way of your family being able to keep the vacation home and continue to enjoy it. Considerations about managing and paying for a vacation property are also important issues to address when planning for such a property. A Limited Liability Company, trust, or co-ownership agreement can create a structure for dealing with issues such as use of the property, shared expenses, maintenance and repairs, and rentals. A well-structured plan will also make provisions for the death or disability of an owner, and the buy-out of an owner’s share if they pass away, become disabled, or just want out.
- Ensure that your minor children are properly cared for in the event of your death. If you’re lucky this summer, you may be able to get away for a weekend with your spouse and leave your young children at home with your parents or friends. Most parents prepare for a weekend away by leaving instructions behind about caring for the children while they’re away. Think of an estate plan as a set of instructions for how your children should be cared for if you are not there. Although it is difficult to contemplate the possibility that you may pass away leaving young children, planning for that possibility will ensure that your children are in a far better position than if you did no planning. Planning ahead means that you are the one who chooses the people that will take care of your children, not the Court. Creating an estate plan means you can make your house available for your children and their guardian to live in, so your kids can stay in the family home, continue to go to school with their friends, and graduate from high school in the town they grew up in.
- Help your children with health care decisions. Children who are age 18 or older are adults in the eyes of the law. This means that they make their own health care decisions. If your college-age student is ill, her doctor cannot share medical information with you without your child’s permission. If your child’s condition means that she is not able to grant that permission, you may find yourself unable to obtain information or make decisions about your child. A health care proxy is a document by which your child can name you to make health care decisions for her if she is unable to make those decisions herself. Your child can sign a HIPAA Authorization to give permission for physicians and other medical professionals to speak with you and release information. These are simple documents that can make access to information and decision-making possible in the event of a child’s unexpected illness.
The peace of mind that comes with good planning will help you enjoy your summer vacation. If you haven’t gone through the estate planning process, the summer is a good time to consider how you would want your plan to provide for your family, and take the first step in putting that plan in place. Time flies and summer will be over before you know it, so don’t wait!
Maria Baler, Esq. is an estate planning and elder law attorney and partner at Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC, a law firm based in Dedham. She is also a former director of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (MassNAELA). For more information, visit www.ssbllc.com or call (781) 461-1020. This article is not intended to provide legal advice or create or imply an attorney-client relationship. No information contained herein is a substitute for a personal consultation with an attorney.