Estate planning isn’t always straightforward. Some family situations present difficult questions that can’t be answered very easily. Such is the case when a couple (I’ll call them Bob and Marie) were in my office asking how to provide for Jenny, their special needs child.

At the moment, they weren’t facing a legal challenge as much as a personal dilemma. The basic question was this; “In creating our will, is it fair to set aside more money for Jenny than for our other two children?”

Special needs more common now

Bob and Marie aren’t alone in this. The number of families facing this kind of challenge is on the rise. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control reported that nearly 1 in 150 children have autism; in 2009, the numbers rose to 1 in 110. These aren’t mere statistics. Real families face important challenges in their daily lives.

Planning proportionally

With so much on their plate, it’s easy to forget about long range financial and estate planning issues. The fact is, however, that a family with a special needs child has even more reason to make financial and estate planning a priority.

Let’s get back to the question at hand. There are, in fact, good reasons to favor a needy child in your will. Their needs might relate to illness, disability, or injury. Comparatively, it puts them at an economic disadvantage. Some of your children might be better off financially than the others, and might not need as much of an inheritance.

No magic formula

There is no magic formula that tells us how much we should leave for each child. It’s a judgement call. It’s simply a matter asking yourself, “Does this accomplish what I want to do with my estate, and is this the best choice for my family?”

There is also the questions of “Why?” Whether your plan meets your goals depends on why you want to leave more to one child than another.  Do you want to make sure your disabled daughter can meet her sometimes costly special needs after you are gone?  Do you want to make sure that your son with cancer has the funds to take that trip of a lifetime?  Do you want your child in the small apartment to finally be able to afford a house like his siblings?

The question of harmony

Your plan isn’t just about financial resources. It’s also about harmony and the legacy you want to leave. Even if there are legitimate needs, you don’t want others to be hurt. Neither do you want there to be animosity toward you or friction between siblings.

You might need to give as much thought to the way you communicate your wishes as to the plan you lay out. Your estate plan is confidential. That doesn’t mean you can’t share your plan with your family now. It might be a good idea, based on your family dynamics.

Three more points to consider

–    There’s no reason you can’t leave a letter with your will, kindly reinforcing the reasons behind your plan.
–    Some families use a family counselor to smooth out the rough edges
–    The way you handle this becomes even more important when you have a special needs child in a blended family.

Plan well regarding longevity

Some families make the mistake of assuming that their special needs child won’t live as long as the others. That’s not always the case. Certainly the opinion of medical professionals should be sought, but you should also work with a financial advisor to consider a variety of scenarios for which you need to plan.

Finally, make sure your legal and financial plans are harmonized well. Your legal professional should help you create the documents you need to support your wishes in a variety of situations. In some cases, your estate plan will need to be updated, depending on whatever changes are taking place in your family and in their health.