By Angela M. Ward, Attorney
When we’re young, we think of death as something in our far distant future. But the reality is that death can happen at any time, and it presents a specific set of challenges for young parents. Like all states, Pennsylvania has its own set of laws outlining how an estate will pass to heirs when a person dies without a valid will. When death comes to young parents without a will, there is far more at stake than simple possessions.
Young parents may view a will as unnecessary if they have relatively few assets, but a will is essential for protecting their most important assets – their children. An experienced Lancaster attorney can help parents craft a will that carries out the important wishes they have for their children’s future. Without a will, that future is left in the hands of others.
If you are a young parent in Lancaster County, you may find it uncomfortable to talk about life after you’re gone, but the consequences of not having a will are far worse than any discomfort you may feel now. Here’s why a will is crucial for young parents:
A Will Can Establish Guardianship for Your Children
Perhaps you assume that if something were to happen to you, a close relative or family friend would step in and care for your children, but that’s not always how the law works. Should you die without a will that specifies guardianship arrangements, the court may end up appointing a guardian. A judge makes a decision based on the information available and the best interests of the child, but it may not be the decision you would have wanted. When no clear guardian is named, your children could end up in foster care until the court decides on a suitable guardian. Creating a will ensures your children will be cared for by a guardian of your choice.
Choosing a guardian for your children takes careful thought. Here are some things to consider:
- Choose someone who is old enough to be a responsible caregiver, but young enough to care for your children until they reach adulthood.
- Choose someone with a temperament that will mesh well with your children’s personalities and who shares your morals and values.
- Make a list of relatives and friends you would consider as guardians and talk with them honestly about your wishes. Make sure they are emotionally, physically, and financially up to the responsibility, especially if your estate will not have sufficient funds to provide for your children.
- If you are considering a friend or relative who does not live nearby, weigh the importance of keeping your children in familiar surroundings.
- In addition to a first choice for a guardian, it is wise to designate a secondary guardian as well. While your first choice may feel up to the task at the time your will is written, they may experience life challenges in the future – from illness to divorce to financial setbacks – that make it difficult for them to assume parenting duties should something happen to you down the road. Having a second choice for guardian will ensure your children are still in a safe, secure, and loving home.
A Will Can Name A Guardian for a Dependent With Special Needs
A will is especially important if you have a child with special needs who will require care beyond the age of 18. You will need to thoughtfully choose a guardian who is not only able and willing to care for your child into adulthood but who also lives close to any resources your child may need. An estate plan also allows you to create a specialized plan to financially support your special needs child without jeopardizing any federal aid they receive.
Inheriting a lump sum of cash could disqualify your child from receiving government assistance, such as Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid benefits. Instead, as part of your will and estate plan, you can create a special needs trust to hold bequests and assets. Since the money is not going directly to your child, it will not affect their ability to receive other benefits. A trustee of your choice can spend the money on your child’s behalf for anything from personal care to recreation.
A Will Can Establish a Trust to Help Provide for Your Children
Although trusts generally are more difficult and costly to create, they may be the right option for you as young parents, depending on the size of your estate and your unique situation. In addition to trusts specifically designed for those with special needs, you should also create a testamentary trust that designates a trustee who will distribute the inheritance to your minor children under the terms specified in your will.
A trust allows you to control the funds your children receive, when they receive them, and to some extent how the money is spent. You can also allocate funds for education. Typically, the trustee will be responsible for investing the money and using it for your children’s needs until they reach 18 (or later as designated in the trust) and take control of the remaining funds themselves. Additionally, a trust can bypass the costly probate process and make assets immediately accessible upon your death.
Already Have a Will? It May Be Time for a Review
Even if you already have a will, it’s important to review it annually to make sure it reflects any major life changes, from the birth of a child to the sale or purchase of a major asset. It’s also important to regularly review the beneficiaries on your life insurance policies, investments, and other important accounts. Did you name a beneficiary before you had children? Is the beneficiary someone who is no longer part of your life? Even if your will is up to date, it will not override a beneficiary designation on your important accounts, meaning those assets could go to someone other than your children.
If you are a young parent in Lancaster County and you find the thought of creating a will overwhelming, an experienced Lancaster lawyer can help. Contact the Law Offices of Going and Plank in downtown Lancaster today. We can review your options and help you create, revise, or review a will, trust, or estate plan to ensure your children are protected and cared for now and in the future.