It is difficult for any parent to imagine something preventing them from taking care of their children. Laura Ardito, a Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU), says, “People are naturally reluctant to talk about issues like death or illness because it makes them upset and uncomfortable.”

But it is important for parents to make sure their affairs are in order. Kathy Lane, author of the book, Die $mart (nFormed LLC, 2011) explains, “If you don’t take charge and understand what can happen to you and your money, the state will take over and your loved ones will have to fight for your rights and intentions.”

Some people put off buying life insurance or having a will drawn up because they don’t think they have the time or resources to sit down with an attorney. Ardito explains, “If you die without a will and end up in probate it will cost your estate a lot more. Plus you will be making things even more difficult for your family.”

Here are the legal documents every parent should have.

Living Will and Healthcare Power of Attorney

A living will is a legal document that outlines what life-prolonging medical treatments you want in the event you are in a terminal condition and unable to speak for yourself.

In addition to these documents, get life insurance—while you’re still healthy.

A healthcare power of attorney is a legal document that allows you to designate an individual who can make healthcare decisions in any situation that you are unable to speak for yourself. Ardito was pregnant with her fifth child when her husband was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer. Ardito says, “Even though I was a businesswoman and in the field, I didn’t realize how grief would affect my judgment. The fact that my husband and I had discussed these matters in advance and that he had a living will allowed me to feel less guilty because I knew exactly how he wanted things handled.”

Will that Includes Legal Guardians for your Children

A will is a legal document that outlines the distribution of a person’s property after death and names an executor to carry out the directions of the will. For parents, the most important part of a will is naming a guardian for their minor children in the event that both parents are unable to care for them. If you die without naming a guardian, a judge will choose one for you.

The guardian is legally responsible for the children’s physical care, health, education, and welfare until they reach 18 years of age. It is important to choose someone you feel comfortable with and to discuss it with them in advance to confirm they are both willing and able to handle this responsibility.

You can choose to assign two guardians—one that gets physical custody of the children and one that handles the financial responsibility—or you can have one guardian for both. Andres Mejer, a New Jersey-based attorney, cautions, “If you are going to choose two people, make sure they can work together towards the best interest of the children. You don’t want them constantly fighting over what to do.”

Trusts and other legal documents every parent should have ->



Many people think that trusts are just for wealthy people or that if you have a will, you do not need a trust. But Lane says all parents of minor children should consider setting one up. “If you die without a trust, the state of New Jersey will give your children access to their inheritance when they turn 18…” she advises. “Instructions in the trust will determine what age a child receives their inheritance.”

Financial Durable Power of Attorney

Like a power of attorney, a financial durable power of attorney authorizes someone to act on your behalf regarding financial matters should you become incapacitated and unable to make these decisions yourself. Mejer adds, “The power of attorney terminates upon your death, at which point the executor or administrator of the will can act on your behalf.”

The person you assign your financial durable power of attorney should be someone who is comfortable with finances and taxes.

The Bottom Line

Remember, none of these documents are effective if people do not know you have them. Make sure anyone assigned a responsibility (guardians, power of attorney, etc.) has a copy. Also be sure to keep your legal documents up to date. Ardito suggests a yearly “checkup” of your affairs (financial and legal) to ensure everything is in order and to make changes if necessary.

Randi Mazzella, a mother of three, is a freelance writer from Short Hills. Check out her personal essays on parenting at


More From New Jersey Family on Parental Planning: