As a parent, you have a billion things on your plate, from packing lunches and scheduling doctors’ appointments to checking out Hebrew schools and figuring out how to save for college. But one of the most important things you can do for your family is often overlooked: It’s essential to have a plan in place for what happens to them if something happens to you.
“I was in a meeting today with a woman who is 35, and two-and-a-half years ago she lost her husband,” says Sally Kaplan, program director at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan. “She knows from experience how important it is to have documents set up that address this scenario — and what happens if you don’t.”
It’s not a fun topic, but it’s a critical one. If you die, or your spouse dies, before your children become adults, it’s imperative that there is a record of who will care for the children. It’s also important to note how you want your kid to be cared for — for example, will they attend public school or a Jewish day school? Will they have a bar or bat mitzvah?
Here’s what you — a responsible parent — need to do.
1. Designate Guardians
No one wants to imagine they won’t get to see their children grow up, so deciding on guardianship of your kids is understandably an emotionally challenging decision. But if you don’t make this decision, a court will, so it’s in your best interest (and your kids’) to decide on a person you think is best, and then have a conversation with that individual to make sure they agree.
Numerous dynamics — from lifestyle choices to educational wishes to financial means — should factor into your decision, and it’s likely no single person is going to check every box perfectly: Maybe you want to ask your warm and loving sister, but she doesn’t do Shabbat. Or maybe you really like your brother-in-law, but his health isn’t great. If your kids have honorary godparents, they may be another good choice. The important thing is not to make a “perfect” match, but to make a good match with a person you know you can count on in an emergency situation.
2. Set Up a Will
Wills are crucial documents that bequeath your assets — money, property, personal goods — as well as your guardianship choice. A will may include a family trust, which is money that is set aside and handled by an appointed trustee until your children become adults. You can also choose an executor to handle your affairs and a conservator who handles your children’s finances until they come of age. That person might be their guardian or another family member. The importance of a will can’t be overstated, as it is one of only a few legal documents a court will recognize if someone chooses to dispute proceedings after your death.
3. Consider a Financial Trust
Drafting a financial trust for your children is an excellent way to ensure the money you set aside for them is protected from taxes, and that a responsible adult (the trustee) looks after their best financial interests. Work with your financial advisor or lawyer to decide how your money will be distributed to your children, at what age, and even for what purpose.
4. Create an Advance Directive
This document allows you to make decisions about the type of treatment you want to receive if you are in a serious accident, say, or for end-of-life treatment in cases of a terminal illness. Often people wonder what the difference is between an advance directive versus a living will, and while they are very similar, living wills tend to focus on issues such as when to resuscitate or when to take you off life support, while advance directives focus on nuances of the types of treatments you would be comfortable receiving. An advance directive allows you to express your values and desires if you are incapacitated.
5. File a Healthcare Proxy and Power of Attorney
A healthcare proxy is a document that appoints a person of your choosing to make medical decisions if you are unable. Similarly, a durable power of attorney assigns someone to make financial decisions if you become incapacitated. They can be the same person, or different people, depending on your situation. Both of these documents are key for eliminating family fighting, and allow for a smooth process should something happen to you.
6. Buy Life and Disability Insurance
Like death and taxes, talking about life insurance might sour your stomach, but it’s something every responsible adult should have. A life insurance policy is one of the best ways to financially protect your children in the unlikely event of your death. Likewise, disability insurance provides a lump sum payout in the event you become injured or ill and unable to work and can cover your family when you need it most. Talk with your financial advisor about how big of a policy to purchase.
7. Name Your Beneficiaries
For assets like 401ks, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, and brokerage accounts, be sure your beneficiaries are up-to-date and create a single document that lists each account or policy with the name(s) of who it benefits when you pass. At least once a year, review your list of beneficiaries, and update accordingly as your family grows.
8. Write an Ethical Will
An ethical will is a way to pass on your legacy and values to your children. It’s a place for you to record your hopes and dreams for the next generation, and recount personal stories that others can learn from. There is no right or wrong way to create an ethical will. “You can use whatever medium you prefer,” says Rabbi Abigail Treu, director of the Center for Jewish Living and the Sonabend Center for Israel at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan.
Journals, a series of letters, or a video are all valid approaches. “People usually receive a last will and testament when a loved one passes,” says Treu. “Imagine instead if the last piece of paper you receive from a loved one was a personal letter of what they hope for you, how they want your life to be, their values and a blessing for you.”
Though you can include whatever you wish, Treu cautions against commands such as “become a doctor” or “invest the money here.” Instead, consider topics like, “lessons I forgot to teach you” and “what you mean to me.” Says Rabbi Treu,“This way, families can use it as a way of remembering and celebrating your life.”