The Kids Are All Right? Four Ways To Make Sure

The traditional wedding service includes a prayer for the “gift and heritage of children.” Like many parts of the old ceremony, this lovely phrase may not apply to same-sex couples.

Just as we are unlikely to be “given away” by our parents or promise to “obey” our new spouse, we may exchange wedding bands with no thought of having children, whether by adoption, surrogacy, or other means. But for those of us who do have children, they are indeed a gift and heritage, and caring for them is nothing short of a sacred duty.

Organic baby food? Check. Piano lessons? Of course. Academic tutors, enriching vacations, and endless positive reinforcement? Check, check, and check.

As same-sex couples, we can perhaps be forgiven for parenting with such zeal. After all, for us acquiring children requires a level of determination that most straight couples have never contemplated. Our children mean so much to us, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine our lives without each other.

And yet we need to do just that.

Part of being a good parent is preparing for the unexpected. This is one area where many parents—gay and straight alike—too often fall short. What would happen if you and your partner were both gone? Who would take care of your children? Would they be adequately provided for financially?

These may be difficult, even painful questions to contemplate. But confronting them in a mature, thoughtful manner is an essential part of good parenting. Here are five pitfalls parents should takes steps to avoid:

1. Naming younger children as life-insurance beneficiaries. This may seem counterintuitive. You bought life insurance to provide for your children upon your death, so shouldn’t they be named as the beneficiaries? Probably not. Leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to a young person often leads quickly to disaster.

The smarter move is to direct your life insurance payout into a trust for your children’s benefit. The money will be managed for their health, education, and support until they reach a certain age, say 30. The trust can be established under your Will with someone dependable named as the trustee.

2. Neglecting to prepare a Will. In addition to setting up a trust for your children, a Will ensures that they inherit your assets efficiently. There are rules of inheritance for people who die without a Will, but they should not be relied on.

Same-sex couples are especially vulnerable to inheritance problems. Our family relationships can be legally complicated, and we face the increased likelihood of interference from disapproving family members. Preparing a Will ensures that your wishes are not only clear but also legally binding.

3. Failing to name a guardian. A guardian takes legal custody of a minor child when the parents are deceased. If you haven’t designated a guardian under your Will, the court will appoint one on your behalf. This person could be a well-meaning family member with values and a parenting style very different from your own.

The ideal guardian is someone who loves your children and shares your values. Choosing someone who lives near you, to prevent your children from being uprooted in case of your death, is also worth considering.

4. Appointing the wrong trustee. Your children’s guardian and trustee have different jobs. The guardian provides the children with housing and manages their education and medical care. The trustee holds the purse strings and usually has broad discretion to decide what expenses should be paid for out of trust assets.

The guardian and trustee can be the same person, but naming different people can add an element of accountability. For example, your guardian couldn’t use money from the trust to renovate her basement—“to give little Johnny a place to play”—if the trustee didn’t approve of the expenditure.

Your children’s welfare is too important to leave to chance. Preparing a well-crafted estate plan will help to ensure that, no matter what the future holds, the kids will in fact be all right.