Single parent wills & estate planning

What single parents need to know about guardianship, finances, and health care decisions

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Elissa SuhSenior Editor & Disability Insurance ExpertElissa Suh is a disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius, where she also covered wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

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Estate planning helps you to prepare for what happens to your assets and belongings (your estate) when you die as well as who makes decisions when you’re incapacitated. If you're a single parent, you have children that depend on you financially, so it’s especially important that you create an estate plan to make sure they’re cared for — financially and otherwise — after you’re gone. Common estate planning measures include a trust, documents like a durable power of attorney and living will, and a last will and testament — the foundation of a solid estate plan. Dying without a will in place means dying intestate and leaving a court of law to determine what happens to your money, belongings, and even your minor children.

Key takeaways

  • When you die without a will, it can make things complicated for the people you leave behind, including your children

  • Single parents might be widowed, divorced, or never married, and they may need to make different considerations when creating their estate plan

  • A will provides a way for single parents to state their guardianship preferences for their child

  • Single parents should seriously consider using a trust to hold money and assets for their kids, especially if they’re minors

What happens to the children when a parent dies?

After a married person passes away, their children usually continue living with the surviving parent in their current living arrangement. But if you're a single parent, then who becomes the guardian of your children can vary, depending on your relationship with the other parent and custody arrangements.

  • If you're a single parent who shares custody with someone else, then it's likely that the other parent will become the child's full-time guardian.

  • If you don't share custody with the other parent, or if they're unsuitable to be a parent because they’ve been convicted of a crime, then the court may have to appoint someone else to act as legal guardian. If you have more questions you can reach out to an estate attorney 

A strong estate plan starts with life insurance

To make sure your child is raised and taken care of by the person you want, you can name a guardian in your will.

Making a will as a single parent

A will, formally called a last will and testament, is a legal document that provides instructions for what happens to your stuff when you die. The person who receives your assets is called your beneficiary, and you can broadly give away the entirety of your estate or make specific gifts, called bequests.

Using a will also gives you the opportunity to appoint an executor who will manage your estate. Even if your estate is small, naming someone to settle it can make the process smoother after you pass away.  

In addition to letting you give away your assets, a will allows for single parents to designate a guardian for their minor children. As we mentioned before, the court will typically grant the other parent guardianship rights, but if you have a strong preference for someone else to act as your child's guardian then you can say that in your will and explain why.

Single parents who have a straightforward situation and are just looking to leave assets for their children can typically make a valid will without lawyer through a cost-effective option like an online service.

Create a living trust

Trusts are separate legal entities that can hold your assets to be used by your trust beneficiaries in the future. You can dictate the terms of the trust, in the trust agreement, and delineate how the trust property should be used — you can even control your child's spending habits by restricting how much money they receive or how often they receive it. Trusts are particularly useful for single parents who have minor children, since a minor can’t inherit large sums of money if they’re under the legal age of the majority

Here are a few things that single parents can think about when setting up a trust:

  • At what age should the beneficiary receive trust assets?

  • How much money the beneficiary should receive and how often?

  • What can the money be used for? 

Learn more about setting up a trust for a minor child.

It’s a popular misconception that only ultra-wealthy people have trusts; a simple trust fund can provide many benefits and can be affordable, too. When you get a will with Policygenius, it’ll come with a revocable trust.

If you set up the trust and transfer assets into it during your lifetime, it can make things easier after you pass away. Trusts can avoid probate, and the funds won’t be tied up in probate court while your affairs are being settled after you die. If you already set up the trust to pay for some of your child’s expenses, it can continue to do so without any interruption when you pass away. 

Specialty trusts for taxes and special needs

If you’re a wealthy single parent then you may benefit from establishing an irrevocable trust, which can protect your assets and reduce potential tax liabilities, ensuring your children receive as large of an inheritance as possible. 

An irrevocable trust can also help if you have a child with special needs by making sure any inheritance you leave them won’t disqualify them from receiving government benefits. Learn how a special needs trust works as well as how a trust helps you qualify for Medicaid.

Consider getting life insurance

Single parents worried about providing for their child financially after they die might consider getting life insurance. The death benefit, or proceeds from a life insurance policy, can be used to pay for your child’s daily living expenses or even their education. If you have specific instructions regarding how the money should be used, you can have the life insurance policy pay out to a trust, so the trustee can distribute the money as you intended.  

Learn more about life insurance & single parents

Create other essential estate planning documents

Since single parents have children who are relying on them, they need to make sure they have a contingency plan in place for when or if they become incapacitated. Consider the following options:

  • A financial power of attorney (POA) lets someone you choose make legal decisions for you involving your finances.

  • A healthcare proxy (medical POA) lets someone make end-of-life health care decisions for you.

  • A living will lets you specify your wishes regarding specific medical procedures you want to receive.

These estate planning documents are often straightforward and inexpensive to create, and you may be included in the cost of getting a will.

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