If the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have taught single parents anything, it’s that our lives are fragile and death can be sudden.
The coronavirus alone has increased the number of single-parent households in the United States with the unexpected and untimely demise of a loved one or partner.
Many of the surviving children have been placed in foster care or adopted or are living with relatives as they cope with the trauma and mourn the loss of a parent.
Their future, however, does not need to be uncertain — whether a parent’s death results from a virus, a vehicular accident or a fire.
As single parents, we can — and should — protect them by taking certain steps.
This column serves as a primer to help single mothers and single fathers navigate the basics of estate planning.
Because laws vary from state to state, any specific questions and requests for legal advice should be directed to an attorney.
What if I had died?
An article I stumbled upon recently prompted me to research this area of law, a move I wish I had done when my son was a baby.
Even though the court entrusted Joseph’s health and well-being to my consistent care by granting me sole physical and legal custody, what if I had died while he was young?
I commuted long distances to and from work daily for years. I could have died in a car accident. It’s not unreasonable to raise such concerns — even now.
His father, my narcissist, eventually married and began a family of his own before Joseph started grade school. In no uncertain terms, his wife, my son’s stepmother, wanted nothing to do with my son.
Because of her declarations and our move an hour from my narcissist’s house, the visitation schedule was modified to shorter, less frequent visits that did not include my narcissist’s residence.
If I died, would the court order Joseph to live with his father, his stepmother and their two children? Or would my parents, his grandparents, who raised Joseph with me, have any say? Could he live with them?
And what would happen to Joseph’s inheritance, the house I bought, my meager assets? Would Joseph be able to keep them? How much would be lost to legal expenses?
Fortunately, nothing happened to me, but with Joseph only months away from his 18th birthday, I want to guarantee that he receives my assets without any question or argument.
Following are some components single parents should have in their estate plan.
What’s a will? What is a guardian? What is a beneficiary? What is an executor?
In the simplest terms, a will is a document that states your final instructions and wishes. It speaks for you when you are gone.
A single parent can use this document to name a preferred guardian for their children and their property and a beneficiary or beneficiaries to receive the single parent’s property rather than leaving that decision up to the probate court system, which deals primarily with wills, estates and guardianships.
A single parent should select an individual, not a couple, as the guardian so that the child or children do not become embroiled in marital disputes and cohabitation concerns.
In addition, the single parent should have an honest conversation with the individual they have selected to ensure they will and can accept the responsibility of raising the single parent’s child or children in the manner set forth by the single parent.
The single parent must also choose an executor, an individual who carries out the terms of the will, manages the unfinished affairs of the single parent, protects assets and guides the estate through any probate court proceedings.
If a single parent’s child or children are attached to their family pet, they should be included in the will to ensure that attachment is preserved.
When creating a will, single parents should be “of sound mind,” which means they must have the “sufficient mental capacity” to understand their actions.
The single parent and two witnesses must sign the document. A public notary is strongly encouraged as they will confirm the identity and state of mind of the signer or signers. Having the will notarized can also help usher the document easier through the court system barring any substantive objections.
What is a trust? What is a revocable living trust?
A trust is a legal arrangement where one person gives legal ownership of the property to a second person who uses it to benefit a third person.
This option is best suited for single parents with substantial assets — a homeowner with at least $160,000 of assets — who need a second person to manage their assets on behalf of their children should they become incapacitated or die.
The benefits of having a trust include avoiding probate court so the beneficiaries — the single parent’s children — receive the assets sooner; controlling the distribution of assets and privacy.
Single parents may want to consider the revocable living trust because it can be changed or revoked at any time while they are alive. The single parent can retain control over their assets until they die or are incapacitated at which time the second person mentioned above has the decision-making authority.
If the single parent wants to set money aside for their child or children’s education, they may want to establish a testamentary trust, which is a trust created through their will; an educational trust fund or a college trust fund. These particular funds ensure that the money pays for educational expenses.
What is a durable power of attorney? What is a conservatorship?
A durable power of attorney is someone whom the single parent authorizes to handle certain affairs — if they are unable to do so because of death or illness.
This individual has tremendous authority at a time when the single parent and their children are at their most vulnerable. Trust is essential.
This attorney would be responsible for paying bills, managing online banking accounts and handling any other financial matter.
Without a durable power of attorney, the court may appoint a conservatorship to manage the single parent’s estate. The conservatorship is a legal status given to a person to manage the financial affairs of an individual who is considered incapacitated or incompetent.
What is an advance medical directive?
An advance medical directive is a legal document where the single parent can state their preferred end-of-life care, so their children, family members and friends are not left making painful or perhaps unwanted decisions.
This document is commonly referred to as a living will or health care proxy.
A single parent with health issues can appoint a durable power of attorney for health care to ensure the advance medical directive is carried out if they are unable to do so.
A living will is a great option for single parents who do not have any relatives or close friends living near them.
What is a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act authorization or waiver?
The HIPAA authorization or waiver is a document that lists the individuals who are permitted to have access to a single parent’s medical records if they are incapacitated.
Without this document, the single parent’s information is confidential.
Anyone named on the authorization or waiver cannot make decisions for the single parent. That role is reserved for the durable power of attorney for health care if appointed.
Those named on the document can, however, speak with the single parent’s health care providers.
A single parent can include this authorization or waiver in their advance medical directive but some medical facilities may require a standalone HIPAA document.
What are beneficiary forms?
Single parents with life insurance policies, retirement accounts or brokerage accounts should designate that their child or children are the beneficiaries of these assets through a proper beneficiary form.
The funds in these policies and accounts cannot be transferred to a child or children through a single parent’s will or trust without this documentation.
If the child or children are minors when the single parent dies, they will not receive these funds, making this documentation even more critical.
Templates and other resources
Several templates are available to assist single mothers and single fathers with creating a will. Whether you decide to use a template, create a will with an attorney or both, depends on the complexity of your estate planning needs and goals.
The best templates aren’t bogged down with confusing legalese. They provide instructions on how to complete your will and alert you when you need an attorney’s assistance.
Another tool is the Kids Protection Plan®, which is part of the comprehensive Kids Protection Planning Kit®. This “legal guardian nomination” document allows the single parents to name the individuals who would be the guardians of their children should they be incapacitated or dead. The document and the attorney reviewing it are offered for free.
The kit, however, is not free, but it offers a package of documents, including letters to guardians and instructions on how to care for your children if you are incapacitated and how the guardians should raise your children.
The information provided in my column is intended to provide some insight into a process that is complex, emotional and anxiety-inducing. If you have any questions or concerns, please consult an attorney.
On Thursdays, I share a blog about a day in the actual life of a single parent.
Starting the summer of 2021, my son, Joseph, is writing a monthly column titled In My Son’s Words where he describes his experiences as a teenager and as a child of a single parent.
Twice a month, instead of a personal post, I put together one where I assemble news on and about single parents nationally and globally.