Jackie Livaudais knows what it's like to want to provide for a child's future when one's own is uncertain. She was pregnant with her third son when her husband, an Army ranger, was killed in Iraq.
Applying for assistance as a veteran's widow was difficult because her husband, Nino Livaudais, was killed early in the Iraq War. "At the time, a lot of programs were out of date," she says, using her experience with Utah's Division of Motor Vehicles as an example. "The DMV didn't know what to do with us or how to handle our paperwork."
While government programs have improved those processes, the challenge of making complicated decisions after a partner's death hasn't changed. As a volunteer, Livaudais helps other military spouses and their children get through those first months.
When it comes to saving for a child's future, her advice for anyone who has lost a spouse is to start a tax-advantaged college savings plan known as a 529 plan. But she suggests not contributing a lot of money before making other major life decisions, such as where to live.
Parents who have lost a spouse – as a result of military service or otherwise – should take the following steps to manage college savings.
[Take these steps before opening a 529 plan.]
1. Hold off on big 529 plan decisions: Surviving spouses may not be comfortable over the long term with investment choices made in the immediate aftermath of their partner's death. "Any time someone's dealing with loss, way too many people are trying to take advantage," says Tim Heaslet, a chaplain and chairman of the nonprofit Children of Fallen Soldiers.
It takes time to get comfortable with making financial decisions on one's own, especially if the couple made decisions as a team. "I never handled major financial decisions by myself," Livaudais says.
She says to start with "small, reasonable contributions to 529 plans and increase when grief isn't so heavy."
[Get tips on evaluating 529 plan performance.]
2. Encourage family and friends to open accounts for the child: Family, friends or coworkers could set up a plan for minors who have lost a parent, but the living parent or a family member needs to be named as the account's owner, says Paul Paeglis, executive director of the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority. This is so the family controls the plan's funds.
Contributions can be made by anyone. For the plan managed by the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority, individuals may write checks with the beneficiary's name on the check memo line, he says. "This is no different than third-party giving like families do for a child's birthday or holidays."
It's easy to contribute to a child's account by giving money to the parent, directly to a 529 plan or through a gift-giving program like Ugift or GradSave.
[Learn how to ask for contributions to a child's 529 plan.]
3. Start a memorial page for contributions: While GradSave offers all parents the option of setting up a website to crowd fund their child's education, families can also set up memorial pages. The funds raised can be sent to a 529 plan of the family's choice.
GradSave also recently started a special landing page featuring children who have lost a parent in the U.S. armed forces, where individuals who'd like to help a military family may do so. Landing pages are being planned for surviving children of police officers and emergency workers.
Livaudais' family has set up a memorial page. Her children are now 15, 12 and nine years old and each aspires to attend college.
Destre, 15, wants to be an artist or a musician. Carson, 12, wants to be a surgeon. Grant wants to be an Army ranger like his dad.
"A lot of businesses and kind Americans want to reach out and help kids," Livaudais says. Some reach out through donations and others through thoughtful messages and videos. She says those gestures show her children how much their father's sacrifice is appreciated.
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.