Questions to Ask When Choosing a Guardian for Your Child

Choosing a guardian for your children is one of the most difficult things you may ever have to do as a parent, and if you have a special needs child the task is even more difficult.  From parenting style to living situation to your gut feeling about this person’s ability to love your child as well as you do—there are endless things to consider before you ask the big question.

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, MassMutual has published a list of 10 questions for parents to ask themselves when choosing a guardian for their child with autism or special needs.

Although the list is supposed to be for parents of children with special needs, the questions are a helpful road map for any parent, not just parents of special needs children.  MassMutual’s ten questions cover issues such as considering how close the person you are considering as guardian currently lives to your child, whether he or she is financially able to assume the responsibility of guardian, and whether you should name a second or third person or couple as backup guardians. These are important questions that all parents should ask themselves before choosing a guardian.

Having children means always planning ahead and thinking about the future, even as you try to live in the present and appreciate the small moments in every day. Nominating a guardian for your children makes it that much easier to focus on the here and now, because in the back of your mind you’ll know that your children will be protected if something happens to you. Let our firm help you achieve that peace of mind.

Filling in the Blanks of Your Estate Plan

Do feel like there’s more to your children’s inheritance than money?  Does your will or trust seem good but… not quite enough?

You’re right.  A will and a trust are essential documents to have—especially if you have minor children—but there’s more to protecting your children than those documents.  With those documents (plus a nomination of guardian, of course) you’ve provided for your children financially, but what about emotionally? After all, you’ve built a full life for your family and children, one in which they are comfortable and happy.  Preserving (as much as possible) the comfort and stability of that life is at least as important as preserving your financial estate.

One of the best ways to do this is with a document called a memorandum of intent.  A memorandum of intent is a letter that you write to the guardians of your children.  This is a document that details the crucial minutia of your daily life.  In it you can express the things that might be considered too small, or the things that change to frequently, to include in your trust—but are essential to the daily fabric of your life:

  • After-school activities
  • Names and phone numbers of your children’s “best friends”
  • Your preferences for religious upbringing
  • Unique holidays and traditions celebrated by your family
  • Pediatrician name and phone number (or other health-care providers)
  • Your discipline style and parenting resources you find helpful
  • Your children’s favorite foods, favorite toys, comfort objects

These things may all seem small right now, but it is these comfortable people, places and activities that will help your children through a difficult transition should tragedy strike. You can’t be sure that you will always be there to guide your children into adulthood, but you can be sure they will always know your hopes and wishes for them.

(*A memorandum of intent is not necessarily just for parents of young children.  Memorandums can be especially helpful if you have a special needs child or are the caretaker of an elderly parent.  Some people have even chosen to leave memorandums of intent along with a pet trust to the caretakers of their pets.)

Plan Ahead to Secure the Future of Your Special Needs Child

Parents of special needs children know that they need to plan ahead.  Depending on what the child’s needs are, that child may live at home and require a caretaker for the rest of his life.  What that means is that parents of special needs children need to plan not only for the immediate and long-term future—including retirement—but also to provide for the care of their special needs child after they (the parents) have passed away.

Such comprehensive planning, with no real end in sight, can be a huge challenge, as Larry and Patti Altman, parents of a son with spina bifida, well know.  As this article by Kara McGuire portrays, the Altmans have been diligent about planning for their own future, the future of their special needs son Josh, and the futures of their other two sons Zach and Max.  Although they have always had to take the initiative, the Altmans have not been without help; including the help of an attorney in creating a special needs trust to ensure that Josh’s ability to receive government assistance will never be jeopardized.

The Altmans taken all of the right steps, but the planning and thinking ahead still continues, and may continue indefinitely.  Says Altman, “Parents of special-needs children think about their mortality more than parents that don’t have a special-needs child because you do so much for that child and you wonder ‘Who would do this stuff if I’m not here?’ “

The Best Way to Help the Special People in Your Life

Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles often come into our offices to make estate plans, and one of the questions they ask is how they can support the people in their lives who have special needs. Special needs can include anything from Autism or Down Syndrome to Paralysis or blindness, and everything in between. Our clients know enough to know that they can’t leave an inheritance outright without jeopardizing their loved one’s financial assistance, but they don’t know exactly how they can help. We always tell them that the only way to leave money to their loved one with special needs is through a special needs trust.

Special needs trusts are not yet well-known, but they are gaining attention among attorneys, financial advisors, and in the mainstream media. In fact, we recently found this very helpful article about special needs trusts on an online news source. The article explains that a special needs trust can help by paying for things to improve quality of life that the government will not generally pay for; things such as cultural events, travel to stay in touch with family, computer and media equipment and books.

The article mentions parents setting up special needs trusts for their young children, but a special needs trust does not have to be so limited. It is true that it must be established by a parent or grandparent, but a special needs trust is not limited to just minor children. It can be established for an adult of any age, and anybody can contribute to the trust.

A special needs trust can mean the difference between living an enriched life and barely getting by. If you have someone in your life with special needs, inquire about a special needs trust as a way to leave an inheritance, it could make a world of difference.

New Website May Help Caregivers Breathe a Sigh of Relief

If you provide care for an elderly relative or a special needs child you know how much work is involved in just getting away for an afternoon or evening, let alone planning for their care if you were to pass away. First you have to find a caregiver qualified to handle your charge’s more demanding needs, then there are lists upon lists of “what if” situations, a strict regimen of prescription medicines, and of course all of the little quirks and routines that must be strictly followed. And after all that, just when you feel comfortable leaving your loved one in the care of someone else… your “babysitter” moves away and you have to go through it all again.

What if there was a way that you could not only keep a record of all details, regimens and instructions, but also an easy way to update and communicate that information to any and all caregivers when anything changed? And would it be too much to ask to have this record somehow linked to all the latest research, resources and best-practice recommendations? Apparently it is not too much to ask, because this is exactly what the new online service, CareGiver360®, claims to provide.

CareGiver360® is the brainchild of Ken Ziel, father of a special needs son, who worried about what kind of life his son would have if anything were to happen to Ken. After much research, Ken started CareGiver360®, “an easy to use, interactive Web service that lets you create a secure Personalized Care Guide to help you manage the care of your loved one. CareGiver360® provides a wealth of caregiving resources through its searchable online library. You can draw upon this valuable resource to supplement your personal experience to create a customized, comprehensive care guide.”

CareGiver360® is a fairly new tool, but it sounds so good one has to wonder why nobody came up with the idea before. We would love to provide our clients and readers with helpful reviews, so if you’ve used the service please leave a comment letting us know how it worked for you. And we ought to mention that the service isn’t free, but at just under $10/month it’s probably not going to break the bank either.

Providing for the Special Heroes in Your Life

As an estate planning law firm we often have to take on the role of encouraging our clients to think and talk about difficult and sometimes sad issues. Sometimes, however, we have the joy of sharing something truly heartwarming. This video about autistic high school basketball player Jason McElwain is one of those things.

Many of our clients have children with special needs, and know that a basic estate plan is not going to have what it takes to protect and provide for those special needs after our clients have gone. If you have a child you would like to provide for, please contact our office to find out which may be the best tool for your family.

Autistic Adults: When Your Child Needs You as Much at 50 as She Did at 5

Every parent’s first priority is making sure that their child is provided for; that is by far the main issue that brings young couples into our offices, especially if that child is underage—they want to insure that their child will be safe and cared for if that tragic “what if” scenario should ever come true. It’s easier to relax about the “what if” planning once your baby has grown up and doesn’t rely solely on you for food and shelter, love and security. But what if your baby wasn’t going to grow out of that, and would always rely solely on you for those most basic of needs?

This is something that parents of severely autistic children do need to worry about and plan for. What do you do when your child needs you as much at 50 as she did at 5?

The article “ADVICE: Planning for an Autistic Child’s Adult Years” focuses on that very question, and provides help and answers to parents who are trying to make a smooth transition from caring for an autistic child to caring for an autistic adult. This author makes a number of excellent financial recommendations, including signing up for government benefits, looking into long term care insurance, and creating a Special Needs Trust.

“If you have significant assets, consult a financial planner or estate lawyer who can help you set up a Supplemental Needs or Special Needs Trust that will specifically address how your child can benefit from your bequeathal without compromising any governmental aid.”

This sentence is probably the best advice you can get, but the phrase “significant assets” is a little misleading. Special Needs or Supplemental Needs trusts are not just for the wealthy. If you have a house you have “significant assets”. If you have life insurance policies for yourself or your spouse you have “significant assets”. When you’re talking about government benefits, “significant assets” is any amount that will make your child ineligible for those benefits, which can be as little as $2,000!

We know you want to provide for your special needs child at any age. Call our office and let us help.

Are There No Prisons? Are There No Workhouses?

Individuals with mental illnesses already have a number of unique challenges to face, and now Time Magazine tells us they have one more terrifying prospect, because, according to Time’s recent article by Kate Torgovnick “on average, people with severe mental illness die 25 years younger than the rest of the population.”

There are many contributing factors to this shocking figure, but one of the main reasons the article gives is that “people with serious mental illness tend to be low on the socioeconomic totem pole and don’t often get the best available health care.”

The real tragedy in this scenario is that it doesn’t have to be this way. With the right planning—either by the individual in question or by loving friends and family—someone with a serious mental illness could still have access to the best medical care. And a special needs trust complete with provisions for an advocate or an advisory committee will provide the beneficiary with further protection; someone to ensure that his or her needs are being met, and any ailments are taken seriously by medical professionals.

With enough education and planning, perhaps we can improve the situations of those with mental illnesses… and change that shocking mortality rate as well.

Special Needs Awareness Is A Benefit To All

Our blog posts this week have focused on how the upcoming election could impact your assets and estate plan, and with our final post of the week it seems prudent to address the impact of the election on special needs families as well.

After Sarah Palin’s speech in Pennsylvania on October 24, there seems to be some confusion over how each candidate’s tax policies would harm or benefit people with special needs. CNN has published a helpful article which briefly discusses the proposed tax plans of both Barack Obama and John McCain, specifically how each would impact a person or family with a special needs trust.

For all the political maneuvering going on at this time, the fact that the concerns of special needs families are being discussed at all is promising. Especially considering that the discussion is taking place in a forum that is likely to reach so many people. Because what is just as concerning as the effects of taxes on special needs trust owners is the huge numbers of people out there with special needs who don’t have trusts all, and whose futures and finances are unprotected.

We hope that this very public discussion will bring awareness to those people who need it, whose families and children would benefit from the protection of a special needs trust. You can’t worry about the effects of taxes on your trust unless you have a trust. And once you have a special needs trust you have an advantage and protection that can’t be matched.

Heart to Heart

Our blog this week has included a series of posts about families with special needs children, beginning with a mention of Sarah Palin in Monday’s post, and how she has helped bring the those families into the limelight.  It seems appropriate to end our series with a letter written to Sarah Palin, published in the Concord Monitor. A letter from one mother of a special needs child to another.

Betsy McNamara’s letter is honest and eloquent.  She writes of the joy she has in her son with special needs, of the hopes she has for his future, and the fear that his life (and hers) will be all the more difficult if the government and local communities don’t take steps to help children and families like hers.  The fact that it is written to Sarah Palin seems to be secondary, it could be a letter to anyone in a position of authority, with the potential to understand her plight and help her son.

This letter speaks to all of us, whether or not we have loved ones with special needs.  It describes the pure and unlimited love every parent has for a child, and the hopes and fears we have for them from the first day they’re born.  Thank you to Betsy McNamara, who with her grace and courage has made our world a little more intimate.