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estate planning

Pop star Michael Jackson (R) carries one of his children, with a cloth over draped his head, as they wave to wellwishers on the balcony of a suite in Berlin's Hotel Adlon 20 November 2002.TOM MAELSA/AFP / Getty Images

As the legal battle over the potentially lucrative and complex estate of Michael Jackson unfolds, it is unclear what - if any - directions the late King of Pop left for the care and provision of his three young children.

Estate planners say that an essential part of setting up a will for anyone who is a parent is choosing a legal guardian for any minors, including financial plans for their care and setting out their inheritance. Without these directions, children would be under the care of the public guardian and trustee, with their legal guardianship decided in a courtroom.

When Mr. Jackson passed away unexpectedly last Thursday, he left behind a 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter by his ex-wife, Deborah Rowe. He also has a seven-year-old son born to a mystery surrogate mother.

Mr. Jackson was fiercely protective of his children, who were often photographed in public wearing veils and masks covering their faces.

There are conflicting reports in the media on whether Mr. Jackson even had a legal will at the time of his death.

On Monday, Mr. Jackson's 79-year-old mother Katherine was granted temporary custody of his kids. A judge is slated to rule this summer on her request to be appointed the permanent guardian of the children, as well as the administrator of his estate.

Sara Plant, vice-president of wealth services at BMO Harris Private Banking, says parents need to include certain basic provisions in their will to look after their children. She offers these five steps to making sure your children are taken care of in your will:

1) Appoint a legal guardian for children under age 18. Choose someone to care for your children in the event that you and your spouse pass away. It should be someone you know and trust. Make sure that someone is willing, so ask them beforehand. Although this sounds like an easy step, Ms. Plant says many couples have a difficult time reaching a consensus on who that guardian should be. Without a specific provision in the will, children in Canada fall under the care of The Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee, until someone is legally appointed to look after them.

2) Consider setting up trusts, so they receive inheritance over time. If you have a young children, you might not want them to receive all of their assets at once. The danger is that at the age of 18, they could decide to drop out of university and blow the money on sports cars. You can address this in your will by stretching out the money in a trust, with specific terms and conditions on how and when this money will be received. This will give them the chance to develop some financial maturity. Because financial provisions for the care of your children are also included in the will, you could dictate in the trust how to pay for their education or health care.

3) Address future use of the family home by children and/or guardian. If parents pass away suddenly, the practical issue of where the kids are going to live will arise. Parents should think about whether the appointed guardian has enough space in their home or is it best for the kids to continue to live in their childhood home? For example, a grandparent that is taking on three kids may have already downsized and have only one bedroom. In that case, it might be better if the guardian moved to the home of the children and lived with them there.

4) Communicate your plans to your children to avoid surprises. For older children who can understand the concept of a will and what it means to inherit assets, it can be useful for them to know what funds are being placed into a trust and when they will get them. This will prevent them being caught by surprise. Although this can be a difficult topic to broach, parents may also want to let older children know who they have chosen as their legal guardian. For example, a single parent with a terminal illness might want to let their children know what provisions they have established upon their death.

5) Keep your will current. Some people have wills that have not been changed in 15 or 20 years. In these cases, the documents are often no longer appropriate and fail to deal with the present stage of their life. What if parents have had another child, purchased more assets, or changed their mind on the legal guardian for their kids? Wills need to be relevant to current circumstances, ages and stages. Normally, people find they need to update and change their will every seven to 10 years. Ms. Plant's advice is to review it every three years.

Roma Luciw is a writer and web editor of the personal finance site. Please send any comments and story ideas to

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