Tips for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
One of the nicest things about being a grandparent is having the ability to shower your grandchildren with gifts and love, to spoil them like you never could with your own children, and then being able to go home without any of the anxiety and financial responsibility that go along with raising a family.
But life has a funny way of sneaking up on you. You're in your fifties or sixties and you may not have the same energy levels you had when you were younger. You've already raised children of your own and you're looking forward to retirement, when all of a sudden, everything is flipped upside down. Possibly due to reasons beyond your control, you are faced with raising kids all over again; only this time it's your children's children.
In recent years, it has become more and more common for grandparents to step up and take their grandchildren into their homes when the need arises. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than six million children in this country under the age of 18 are living in households headed by grandparents or other relatives. The same data also shows that more than 2.4 million grandparents act as the primary caregivers for their grandchildren.
There may be several reasons behind these rising numbers, including death of a parent, child abuse or neglect, issues arising from divorce, military deployment, parental issues with drugs or alcohol, and financial strain or illness which hinders a parent's ability to provide for their child.
If you are a grandparent in this type of situation, you feel the enormous weight resting on your shoulders. Whatever the reason, the task of providing total financial support and parental guidance to your grandchildren can be daunting. Below are some tips that can help you cope.
Take care of yourself.
It's impossible to take the best care of your grandchildren if you are not in the best possible shape yourself. Be sure to visit your doctor on a regular basis for check-ups and take any medications as directed. Regular exercise and a healthy diet are also key to an energized and balanced lifestyle. Keep an eye on your emotional and mental health, as well. If you feel like you could use some time to yourself, ask a trusted friend, relative or neighbor to watch over the kids for awhile. Being a parent again takes a lot out of a person, and alone-time will help you feel re-energized and refreshed. Enjoy quiet time by getting up before your grandchildren in the mornings or staying up for awhile after you've put them to bed. You may even be able to spend time during the day doing something you enjoy while your grandchildren are away at school. Setting aside some personal time will make the time you spend with your grandchildren more enjoyable for everyone. (Read more about managing stress here.)
Make sure you have proper health coverage.
One of the most important issues you face when you become a primary caregiver is finding health insurance for your grandchildren. In most states, unless you are a legal guardian, you will not be able to add your grandchildren to your employer's benefits plan or qualify for other benefits, such as childcare leave. Furthermore, if you are retired, health insurance coverage is usually limited. There are two options offered in every state, Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which typically cover checkups, eyeglasses, shots, medicine and hospital stays. Grandchildren (up until the age of 19, in general) tend to qualify for these programs because most states don't consider grandparents' income when determining eligibility.
Consult the professionals.
Chances are you weren't planning on raising another generation after your own children grew up and left home, nor were you planning on all the accompanying expenses. A financial planner can help you devise a plan and write or review your will and other important financial documents, like life insurance and retirement plans. An additional life insurance policy, for example, can be used to provide your grandchild with living expenses in the event that you die prematurely. You may also want to consider naming your grandchildren as your beneficiaries, particularly if you don't want your assets going to their parents.
Consider your legal status.
A family law attorney can help you determine whether or not it would be beneficial for you to become the legal guardian of your grandchildren, which would allow you to make important decisions regarding their education, medical treatment and other aspects of their upbringing. However, becoming a legal guardian can be complicated. Your children, who may or may not be involved in the lives of your grandchildren, may still retain legal custody, making it harder for you as a grandparent to enroll your grandchildren in school, get access to medical care and obtain health insurance. Family law attorneys are well-versed in custody laws and can help you decide which form of custody is best for your family's situation.
Take advantage of tax breaks.
There are several ways to qualify for tax credits if you are raising grandchildren under the age of 17. If you are living on a low or fixed income, for example, you can apply for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), usually a credit of $1,000 per child. If you make too much money to qualify for the EITC, you may be eligible for the Child Tax Credit or the Child and Dependent Care Credit, in addition to various state tax credits. An experienced financial planner or accountant can give you more information on how you can benefit from all the available tax breaks. (Read more about tax laws here.)
Start an education fund.
If you have the available resources, start putting money away for a college fund. Talk to a financial planner and consider starting a 529 plan, to which you can may contribute up to $11,000 per year (or $22,000 if filing jointly) without paying a gift tax. The funds accumulated in a 529 plan are federal tax-free as they grow, as well as when they are distributed, as long as they are used to pay for education expenses at an accredited college or university. You may also consider setting up trusts for your grandchildren for future use. Keep in mind that there are fees and other ramifications associated with 529 plans and like any investment, there is risk involved. A financial planner will ask you to consider your objectives and risks before investing any money. (Read more about 529 plans and other ways to save for your grandchild's education here.)
Don't forget your retirement plan.
With all the planning and saving for your grandchildren, it is easy to put your own financial future on the back burner. Far too many dedicated grandparents have ended up using all of their savings paying for the basic needs of their grandchildren. Find out if your family qualifies for Social Security or your state's temporary assistance program. Financial planners recommend that primary caregivers do not sacrifice saving for their retirement to pay for a child's education. This is especially important for grandparents who have less opportunities to save. Your grandchildren can always work and apply for the many types of financial aid available to them.
Seek help when you need it.
Help can come in many forms, whether it be financial assistance, childcare assistance, spiritual advice or support from neighbors and friends. It can also be helpful to connect with support groups made up of people who understand what you're going through. Some of the most popular support groups for grandparents include the AARP Grandparent Information Center, the National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights, Generations United and the Foundation for Grandparenting, which provide support group listings and numerous additional resources for grandparents across the country.
Taking on the roll of a parent again can be challenging and oftentimes overwhelming, but it can also be an extremely rewarding experience. It all depends on how you look at it. You have a wonderful opportunity to be an even more significant part of your grandchild's life. A positive outlook will help you through the difficult times you encounter along the way.