Single-parent options run from trusts to child-support default insurance

What one financial planner describes as the ''Dagwood, Blondie, dog, and two-kids family'' is no longer the only standard model. Nowadays many families are made up of a single mother or father with children.

Women are statistically much more likely than men to have to raise children alone. They are also statistically much likelier to have less wherewithal to do it.

And if a woman is counting on alimony and child support, she may have to learn firsthand about the high rate of delinquency in such payments, as well as the fact that the amounts are not adjusted for inflation. Careful financial planning is as crucial for the single-parent family as for the high-powered executive or professional seeking tax shelters.

Claire Longden, first vice-president in charge of financial planning for Butcher & Singer in New York, suggests that one useful tool for the single parent might be a trust funded by life insurance. This can be an inexpensive way to protect a child against the loss of an only parent. The trust owns the insurance, in effect.

She encourages people not to think of trusts as mysterious or esoteric, but to go to a good lawyer to be sure it's done right.

Planning for the children's college education can be one of the biggest concerns, particularly for those living in places where state-supported schools are inadequate. The line graphs tracking the costs of a college education have been marching steadily upward, even as general inflation has eased. Even some two-income families plan for college while the kids are still in booties.

Claire Longden suggests giving children zero-coupon bonds; if they're taxed, it will be at the child's lower rate.

Another option for financing college is establishing a Clifford Trust, under which the income goes to the child but the parent can get the money back after a minimum term of 10 years plus one day.

One task all parents need to consider, but which is especially important for single parents, is appointing a guardian under their will.

Mary Lovett Nitsch, an attorney and the president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, reminds parents of the distinction to be made between guardianship of the person and guardianship of the property.

If a divorced parent dies, courts will usually assign guardianship of the child's person to the surviving parent. But the deceased parent's will can name a trusted friend or relative - or a bank or other institution if the estate is large enough to justify it - as guardian of the property. This will protect the inheritance from mismanagement by the surviving parent if he or she is a good parent who simply cannot handle money. If, on the other hand, the parent with custody feels that the ex-spouse is a ''bad parent'' interested in guardianship simply to get at the child's property, separation of property from the person may cause the ex-spouse to lose interest in both.

Like Ms. Longden, Mrs. Nitsch recommends trusts as a good way to keep one's heirs from coming into a lot of money all at once, which they may be ill-prepared to handle.

Mrs. Nitsch finds that a great many people who think of themselves as almost destitute on a day-to-day basis - and indeed, are - nonetheless have considerable assets in their estates: pensions, profit-sharing, and the like. ''These can really add up if someone's been working at one place for a long time.''

For the single parent who is considering remarrying, Mrs. Nitsch suggests that a prenuptial agreement whereby the prospective stepparent renounces any claim to the parent's estate may be a good idea. ''It can be a protection for the children and a way to screen suitors. The family finances can be all set, and then along comes handsome Charlie or beautiful Susan. . . . If they're willing to sign such an agreement, it's probably true romance.''

She stresses, ''You don't have to be mean about this, but you (the single parent) want to be in the driver's seat.''

She cites an example in which the stepparent did sign such an agreement - but was indeed included in the spouse's will, more generously in each revision, in fact, as the marriage flourished. The point was that the spouse retained control of the situation.

There are also those who suggest that needing a prenuptial agreement may be a sign that the marriage is getting off on the wrong foot.

But planners insist on the importance of being able to discuss financial matters openly - before, during, and after marriage - however unromantic it seems.

Ms. Longden cites a case where a man set up a trust for his children, with payments to start when they reached certain specified adult ages. But the parents divorced, and because the trust was set up, the ex-wife couldn't get at the funds. Money that could have gone to supporting the children while they were young was inaccessible and the ex-wife had to pay the children's daily expenses out of her own salary.

''Everybody loves everybody, of course, but money does funny things to people ,'' Ms. Longden observes.

One development that may prove helpful to divorcing parents is a new program of insurance against default on child-support and alimony payments. The insurance, managed and conceived by Family Support Systems, insurance administrators in New Rochelle, N.Y., will be carried by the Republic Insurance Group of Dallas and the Old Republic Insurance Company of Greensburg, Pa. It will be available only to couples actually negotiating a divorce settlement. The cost is to be 6 percent of the support, the alimony, or both for the period of the policy, payable in advance. One way of handling the payment of the premium would be to tack the 6 percent on the alimony, letting the receiving spouse make the actual payment, says Richard Saitow, president of Family Support Systems. This way the amount becomes part of a deductible sum for the ex-husband, and the ex-wife can deduct it as an expense incurred in protecting her income.

The spouse defaulting on support would be expected to pay the insurance company back with interest, and so obviously the program is intended for responsible citizens with good credit ratings.

But Mr. Saitow says it could be a big help in addressing the serious problem of default on support payments.

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