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Using estate planning to fund loved ones' educational goals

Many people see their estate plan as a means not just to leave money to their grandchildren and others in younger and future generations, but specifically to help them (and their parents) pay for the best possible education they can get. Setting up a trust is a popular way to do that. There's more than one way to set aside money for future educational needs. It's important to choose the one that best meets your family's needs and is fair to everyone.

Some people establish a separate trust for each child. If you have two grandchildren, you could set up a trust for each one and fund both equally. If your goal is to treat both kids the same, that might be the best option. However, if one child chooses to stay close to home and go to a state school while the other goes off to Harvard, those inheritances won't go the same distance.

Another option is what's sometimes known as a "pot trust." You put money into the trust, and then beneficiaries request funds based on their needs. While this type of trust can allow beneficiaries to get different amounts, it's crucial to set the same terms for everyone. For example, you can designate that the money must be used for tuition, room and board and books -- not for a gap year working as an unpaid studio intern or traveling the world (unless you want to fund those activities, of course).

If those hypothetical grandchildren aren't close in age, a pot trust might be unfair to the younger one who may find that there's no money left for them once their sibling has finished their education. If there's a significant age disparity, separate trusts may be a better option.

Yet another option to help fund your grandchildren's education is a 529 college savings plan. These are tax-advantaged plans that allow families to put aside money for children's education (from kindergarten through college and potentially beyond).

Whether you're considering an educational trust for your children, grandchildren or others, it's essential to discuss your goals with your California estate planning attorney. They can help you choose and craft the type of trust that will best serve those goals.

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