You spend fun-filled days with your grandchildren baking, fishing, blackberry picking. They sleep over, toting their pajamas in a special bag reading "Going to Grandma's and Grandpa's house." Then in the morning, you feel a sense of joy as you send them back home to their fine parents, one of whom is your child.
Except that it doesn't always work that way.
I was reminded of this at a picnic when I chatted with a woman I know. She and her husband recently became legal guardians of their grandchildren. She shared some of the challenges of juggling work, school, and childcare, and making dollars stretch to meet the needs of their newly expanded family.
Her love and regard for her grandchildren was apparent. Still, her heart was heavy with considerable demands at a time when she and her husband were already managing their own health and aging concerns and moving into retirement.
The year 2000 was the first time the U.S. Census included questions on grandparental caregiving.
According to results, more than 2.4 million grandparents in the United States were acting as the primary caregivers for their grandchildren.
Following are some basic considerations for grandparents stepping into this weighty role:
Legal status. A family law attorney can help determine whether it would be beneficial for a grandparent to become the legal guardian of grandchildren. Legal guardianship allows grandparents to make important decisions regarding education, medical treatment and more. But doing so can be complicated if parents retain legal custody. An attorney can help sort through the choices.
Health coverage. In most states, grandparents with legal guardianship of their grandchildren can add them to employee benefit plans or qualify for other benefits, such as childcare leave.
There are other options for those who are already retired and therefore have limited coverage, and for those who do not have legal guardianship.
Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) typically cover checkups, eyeglasses, shots, medicine and hospital stays. Most states don't consider grandparents' income when determining eligibility.
Financial planning. A trusted professional financial planner can help devise a plan to meet the expenses that accompany raising a grandchild. Possibilities include child support, foster care or adoption assistance, and subsidized guardianship. Some families will qualify for Social Security or state-run temporary assistance programs.
A planner also can write or review wills and other financial documents, such as life insurance and retirement plans.
Grandparents might consider an additional life insurance policy to provide living expenses to grandchildren in case of premature grandparental death.
Grandchildren will need to be named as beneficiaries, particularly if grandparents do not want assets to go to their children.
Tax breaks. According to ParentingWeekly.com, there are tax credits available for grandparents raising grandchildren under the age of 17. Grandparents living on a low or fixed income can apply for the Earned Income Tax Credit, usually a credit of $1,000 per child. Those with more income might be eligible for the Child Tax Credit or the Child and Dependent Care Credit, in addition to various state tax credits.
Education fund. Financial planners do not recommend that primary caregivers sacrifice retirement to pay for a child's education.
Grandchildren can work and apply for financial aid. But those who are in a position to do so might consider starting a 529 plan, which allows for significant annual contributions without paying a gift tax.
The funds would be federal tax-free while they grow and when they are distributed, as long as they are used to pay for education expenses at an accredited college or university.
For more information, visit sites like ChildrensDefense.org and RaisingYourGrandchildren.com .
Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .