Many parents braved the malls to find their children this year's must-have toy or the hottest gadget.

But gifts come in many forms.

My suggestion to parents is that they take steps in the months ahead to improve their finances in a way that will indirectly be a gift to their children. These steps won't elicit the oohs and aahs that an iPad does, but your children will be grateful someday that you took them.

Here are a few:

Make a will This is essential for parents of young children. A will is the only document that allows you to designate the person you want to be your kids' guardian if you die.

If you don't name a guardian, the court will decide without your input. And it might not choose the person you would have selected. Or a family feud could break out over the guardianship.

"With some families it's easy, and some families it's not so easy, particularly in the blended families we have today," says Michael W. Davis, an estate planning lawyer in Columbia.

Davis says many parents say they delayed drawing up a will because they couldn't decide on a guardian. But do your kids a favor and get the job done. "That's a huge gift," Davis says.

Buy life insurance How will your family pay daily living expenses, the mortgage or college tuition if you die and your paycheck disappears? If you don't have the money to cover those needs, you'll need life insurance.

Buy term insurance that will protect your family for a specific period, such as until the kids get through college or the mortgage is paid off.

Term insurance premiums have been dropping for years because of competition and longer life expectancies. It's the "best time to buy in decades," says Amy Danise, editor of Insure.com, an insurance information website.

Insure.com and insurers offer online calculators to determine the amount of coverage needed. You won't have to buy as much insurance if you have savings and investments that the family can tap, Danise says.

If you can't afford to buy a policy to cover your needs, "buy what you can afford," Danise says. You'll be locking in some coverage at your current age and health and can purchase another policy later when you have more money, she says.

Get an advance directive Don't put children in the tough position of guessing what medical care or end-of-life measures you want taken in the event you're incapacitated and can't speak for yourself.

Prevent this emotionally wrenching situation by getting the right documents.

Marylanders need what's called an advance directive. It has two parts. The first allows you to name a person to make medical decisions on your behalf. The other, frequently called a living will, lets you declare what life-sustaining treatment you want — or don't want.

The Maryland attorney general provides the forms and more information online at http://www.oag.state.md.us.

Additionally, draw up a general power of attorney in which you select a person to make financial decisions on your behalf when you can't, Davis says. That way, your family's financial life won't be interrupted.

Once children are old enough to handle end-of-life discussions, talk to them about your wishes. This will give you a chance to explain your choices, and it will make it easier for them to carry out those wishes.

Update beneficiary designations No matter what your will says, the person listed as the beneficiary on life insurance, annuities, individual retirement accounts and other accounts will inherit that money at your death.