If You Have Kids, You Need a Will

Thinking and/or talking about death are probably not on most people’s top 10 list of ways to pass an afternoon.  We all know, however, that death is part of life and is a reality that all of us need to contend with.  In fact, if all of us did meditate from time to time on how quickly life passes and what death means to each of us, we may make better choices and use our limited time more wisely.

It can be difficult with a young family to think about our children’s lives without us being there to take care of them.  Parenting can be very challenging, and confronting our own death and making a will is just another one of those uncomfortable parenting tasks that fall on our shoulders.  Making a will is not about you, it is about your children.

The process of creating a will is much simpler and more affordable than most people think.  There are several reputable on-line companies that provide templates for wills if your personal financial situation is not too complex.  As estate laws vary by state, make sure that you choose the proper template.  If you would prefer an expert to walk you through the process, most local lawyers and smaller law firms can assist in creating a will, and again the cost is usually reasonable.  For those with complex personal circumstances or finances, your financial advisor, your bank, or your tax accountant could most likely recommend a qualified estate attorney.

Once you commit to making a will, there are several issues that need to be considered.  If you are married, you and your spouse need to sit together to decide what is best for your children.  Please note that the following is not specific legal advice, as we are not lawyers, just general guidance based on our experience.

The first and most important priority is to decide who will take legal custody of your children at your passing.  “No problem,” you say, “I already talked to my sister, and she agreed that she would take them.”  Please know that child custody can become a nightmare scenario without clear communication and legal documentation.  Keep in mind that after your death, you can no longer speak for yourself.  What if your spouse’s parents decide that they should have the kids instead of your sister?   Without a will, the courts decide.  This process can be grueling and devastating to your children and to extended family relationships.

The next and most obvious issue is how best to support your children financially until adulthood.  Splitting your money three ways and giving it to your three elementary school children is probably not the best solution.  This step of the process will most likely require you to create a trust, that is created upon your passing, where the money will sit until certain thresholds are passed (eg: x amount of dollars to be given to each of our three children at their 18th birthday).  If you do create a trust in the will, you will also need to assign an executor to carry out the requirements of the trust.  The executor should be a person who has some financial know-how and is someone you trust.  Know that the executor is required by law to ‘execute’ the will and the trust exactly as specified. 

Another option is to transfer your money and assets directly to the guardians of your children through the will, and let the guardians decide how best to use those funds.  If you trust them to raise your children, it may make sense to trust them with some or all of your finances as well.

Unfortunately, making a will is not a one-and-done proposition.  As your personal and financial circumstances evolve, and as your children grow, you most likely will need to make changes to your will from time to time.  You may want to make one of your grown children the executor of your will.  You may also want to give one of your grown children Medical Power of Attorney so they can make decisions for you if you are seriously injured and unable to communicate your wishes.  You may choose to remove one or more of your children from inheriting your money based on poor life decisions (crime, drug use, etc.), or bequeath certain items to certain individuals. 

If you truly want to bless your adult children, after the will is written, invite them over for a family dinner and read the will to them.  If you excluded one of your children from the will, have the courage and integrity to tell them to their face and, if you feel moved to do it, explain the reason for your decision.  Do not leave that dirty work to the unsuspecting executor, who will take all the flak for your decision after your death, but who will have no power to change the will.

The death of one or both parents can be a very confusing and painful time for most people.  A detailed will can provide a stabilizing structure to the chaos of death, while safe-guarding precious family relationships.  Bless your kids.  Make a will today.