In a recent Washington Post advice column, a reader asked columnist Carolyn Hax whether the reader should explain her decision to name one set of relatives as the guardians of her children to the relatives that she did not name as guardians so that their feelings would not be hurt. Both Ms. Hax and an estate planning attorney agreed that the reader should not explain her decision to the excluded family members. While most estate planners would concur that this is probably the right course of action for most families, the answer for parents of children with special needs is a little more nuanced.
Even if you are not worried about offending friends and family members, choosing a guardian for a child with special needs can be a difficult process. (For some tips on how to go about choosing a guardian, click here.) Many families of children with special needs can find themselves overwhelmed by the child’s needs, even though they are experienced caregivers. They are rightfully worried that a guardian, especially one without a lot of experience taking care of a child with special needs, will have difficulties adjusting to her role should the time ever come to fill it. So even though families can usually only name one or two guardians to serve at one time, you may still want to reach out to other friends and family members for help with raising your child, even if you aren’t planning on using them as your child’s primary guardian.
For instance, some far-away family members may be great at managing money and they know what your child needs to supplement his government benefits, but they may not be able to live with a child with special needs. These people may be good candidates to serve as trustees of your child’s special needs trust. In that same vein, you may have a set of friends who love spending time with your child, but they don’t feel comfortable taking the child into their home on a full-time basis. You could ask these friends to be your respite caregivers who come to visit once or twice a year, maybe for a long weekend or a little longer, so that your child’s guardian can take a vacation. You may also know someone else with a child with special needs who is very familiar with government benefit programs and may be a great resource if the guardian has basic questions about public benefits that don’t require a lawyer’s answer.
While a lot of these roles are informal, there is nothing keeping you from discussing these issues with all of the parties involved while you are setting up your estate plan. If you’ve identified people you would like to help your guardian, you can set forth your wishes in a Memorandum of Intent or in a private letter to your guardian and your helpers. Some families even get everyone together to discuss the arrangements (which may be easier if everyone is from the same family and they get together over the holidays).
Of course, there may be some family members, like the ones discussed in the advice column, who may be offended that you are not asking them to do more. It’s up to you to determine whether they should be included at the start of the special needs planning process or if it would be better to leave a note for them to read explaining their role if you have passed away.
Contact our office for more advice on the collaborative process of raising a child with special needs.