5 Essential Legal Documents Every Parent Needs

5 Essential Legal Documents Every Parent Needs

Here’s the info on documents you need to protect yourself, your family, and your assets.

By: Heather Chaet

Like cleaning that nasty, hard-to-reach area under the fridge where furry green things tend to grow, preparing a legal document like a will is something most of us really, really don’t want to do, but not doing it is much worse. Though no one wants to think about the circumstances when a will or health care directive may be needed, being prepared is the best step you can take now to protect yourself, your family, and your assets later. We have the lowdown on the top five essential legal documents every parent must have tucked away in that filing cabinet.

1. A will. This is a no-brainer, right? For any parent, a will is the no. 1 document to get in order. But, ask your mommy friends who has one and who doesn’t, and you may be surprised by how many have not made a will. A will outlines whom you want to take care of your children in the long term and how your finances and other assets are handled when you die. If you can’t afford a lawyer to help you make a will, there are software programs and web sites that offer less-expensive alternatives to create one. (A few to check out: RockerLawyer.com, Quicken WillMaker Plus, and Suze Orman's Will & Trust Kit.) Sure, there will be tough discussions as you put these decisions in writing, but the peace of mind once it’s done is worth it.

2. A financial power of attorney. Preparing a financial power of attorney is a little like showing up to watch your niece as “Silent Tree #2” in the school play for the fifth night in a row -- you do it more for others than for yourself. With a financial power of attorney in place, it saves your loved ones from having to go through a long court process to gain access to your assets, which is vital if they need to pay for medical expenses or other arrangements. This form designates a specific person to make financial decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so.

3. An advanced directive. An advanced directive is all about your health care. It outlines your wishes and appoints a person to make health care decisions for you. In some states, it is split into two different documents: a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care. The living will explains what you want (and don’t want) in terms of medical treatment, while the durable power of attorney for health care identifies who is in charge of your health care if and when you can’t speak for yourself.

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4. A kid’s protection plan. Many folks aren’t aware of this document, but it’s a critical one for parents to prepare. A kid’s protection plan is different than a will as it summarizes the short-term care of your children -- what happens to them in the hours and days after an event or accident. It also outlines procedures for their wellbeing in the long term. It’s rough to imagine an emergency like this, but having a written plan in place ensures your children are cared for the minute you can’t be there for them.

5. Passports (for everyone in the family). Having a passport doesn’t have to do with life-or-death circumstances, yet, like the rest of the documents on this list, it is about being ready for the unexpected. You may not be planning to travel out of the country, but when an unforeseen event occurs and you have to fly to France tomorrow, that passport becomes an immediate necessity. The bad news: obtaining one can be a lengthy and involved process. The good news: you can find the step-by-step, state-specific details on how to apply for a passport online.

When was the last time you looked at your will?

Heather Chaet documents her mini parenting successes, epic mommy fails, and everything in between for a plethora (love that word!) of publications and websites such as CafeMom, New York Family, and AdWeek. While her online persona is found at heatherchaet.com, Heather lives in New York City with her film director husband and one insanely curious, cat-obsessed daughter.

Image ©iStock.com/JohnnyGreig

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