Today’s economic malaise, increasing lifespans, and society’s misconception that every child needs a college degree have created a new demographic in our society: the “sandwich generation.”

The sandwich generation generally refers to people sandwiched between taking care of their aging parents as well as their children. According to the Pew Research Center Survey conducted in 2012, about 47 percent of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child. Many are housing and/or financially supporting three generations. When it comes to financial and estate planning, the sandwich generation has to plan for their parents care, their own retirement and for their children. Oftentimes the sandwich meat gets cannibalized by the bread and mustard because we tend to care for our children and parents before ourselves.

The immediate planning required for a parent or grandparent is to obtain proper medical insurance coverage. I know that’s seemingly useless advice since the state of health care is fluid at best, and to quote Sen. Max Baucus, “a train wreck” at worst. Next, it is advisable to obtain a power of attorney from aging parents or grandparents. Many people are aware of this, but fail to obtain a health care power of attorney, which might possibly be more important. We need both, along with a living will, a HIPAA authorization, and of course a will or living trust.

Problems arise when grandparents move in with children and contribute monetarily to the mortgage or monthly household expenses. Unless these contributions are reflected in a will, other family members might assume assets get misappropriated by the caring child, despite agreements between the grandparents and the caring child. These scenarios are common and often lead to permanent fracturing in family relations. Families should try and reflect monetary contributions by the parents, and love and caring and financial contributions by the children. Doing so in a will provides rhyme, reason and evidence of intent regarding how and why the assets are bequeathed. Sadly, many people suffer lifetime hurt because they do not understand why a parent left assets to whom and why.

Montana is one of 30 states that have enacted filial responsibility laws (MCA 40-6-214, 301). These laws impose a duty upon adult children for the support of their impoverished parents. However, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in Vencor, Inc. v. Gray (2003) that this duty does not extend to a duty to place and pay for nursing home care. Nevertheless, there is an alarming trend of cases across the United States where nursing homes have successfully sued the children for the long-term care costs of their parents. This is especially true if the children have power of attorney or are listed on the parent’s bank accounts. Bernard Krooks, a past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, recently stated that “nursing homes have become increasingly aggressive in going after those who have the power of attorney or other control over their parents’ funds … if a child controls the money and doesn’t use it for their parents’ well-being, nursing homes can sue him or her for misappropriation of funds.”

With regard to planning for children, the big thing here is life insurance and a well-thought-out designation of a legal guardian. Whether we are alive or not, it is our responsibility as parent to care for our minor children, so get the insurance and choose a legal guardian based on their nurturing ability, not their financial ability. So what’s a parent to do if they are forced to choose between college savings and contributing to their own 401(k)? Balance is desirable, otherwise I advise you to follow the flight attendant’s instructions and always place the oxygen mask over your own mouth first. It is unfortunate to see clients failing to maximize their retirement opportunities because they are more concerned with their children’s future than their own. These are stressful and emotional decisions to make, and the irony is that trying to break a family cycle often results in repeating it.

Caring for parents and children simultaneously is not a new concept. But today the laws and health care legislation are allowing nursing homes to take a bite out of the sandwich generation. If any of the preceding sounds even remotely familiar, take time to visit an experienced estate planning attorney to document your parents intent and to have a plan in place for all three generations.

Steve Darty is principal of the Darty Law Office, an estate planning firm that helps clients with wills, trusts and estate administration. The Darty Law Office is located at 502 W. Spruce St. in Missoula and can be reached at 549-0306.