Estate planning is essential for anyone, but it’s especially important if you are at the stage of life where you are just beginning life with your family. When you have minor children, it’s your job as their parent to care for them.
As parents, we must make choices to ensure our children are well cared for in the unlikely event that something happens to us before they reach adulthood. We never know what might happen in the future. That eventuality is why we must choose someone to act as our children’s guardians if neither parent is alive to care for them.
If you don’t name the person you want as a guardian for your children, the judge will make the decision. That judge won’t know you, your children, or your family. They also won’t know your wishes. Anyone can request to be considered for guardianship, so you shouldn’t automatically assume the judge will select the same person you would have.
Naming someone as guardian in your will or another legal document can let your preferences be known, the judge still appoints the guardian, but your choice will be taken into consideration. In the case of divorced parents, the judge will typically name the child’s surviving parent to be their guardian unless they determine it isn’t in the child’s best interests to do that.
How to Choose a Guardian
When you are selecting the potential guardian for your children, remember that the person doesn’t have to be a relative. Knowing that gives you the freedom to consider all of your options. When considering the potential candidates, think about the following things:
- Parenting style, values, and religious beliefs. Choose someone who views these things in a similar way to you. If your potential guardian has children, watch closely to see how they handle discipline and other issues parents face. If they don’t have children, learn everything you can about their life as a child; how did their parents raise them?
- Where do they live? Do they live close to you? Will your children face a move away from school, friends, and everything that’s familiar while they are learning to live without you?
- How do your children feel about their potential guardians now?
- The potential guardian’s emotional preparedness for taking on the added responsibility. A single person may not want to be a parent. Someone with several children may feel that taking yours in will be too much for them or their family. Of course, in either situation, the potential guardian might embrace the challenge of adding children to their daily life.
- Time and energy of the potential guardian. Someone who has a job that keeps them away from home a lot may not seem to be a good choice due to time constraints, but sometimes people will surprise you with a willingness to change their schedule. Your parents might seem like the perfect choice, but at their stage of life, will they be able to handle a toddler or a teenager?
- Will your child fit into their guardian’s family, or will they feel like an outsider?
- The ages of everyone involved are an important part of the equation. If your child is young, an older person might not be the right choice. If your choice of guardian is a younger person, they may have other priorities. If you have a relatively mature older child, you can consider their input when making your choice.
- Is your choice willing to take on the role? Don’t assume that anyone would love to take on the responsibility of guardianship over your children. Ask them. If they aren’t willing, leave them off your list.
Consider the Finances
You don’t want your child to place a financial burden on the person you ask to be their guardian. Conversely, the guardian’s lack of finances shouldn’t be the factor that makes your final decision either. You should provide money from your assets, life insurance, or both sources to provide for your children. These funds could help the guardian make necessary changes to add your children to their home.
When making these choices, you want to consider whether the same person should care for your children and manage their inheritance. If your choice of guardian isn’t the best person to handle money, you may need to select two people, each with a different responsibility.
Many parents decide to set up a trust for the inheritance and name someone other than the guardian to handle the trust. If you choose this route, ensure that the two people you choose can work well together for your child’s best interests.
Consider a Letter of Instructions
You might want to write a letter to the guardian you choose with your desires for your children’s upbringing. Tell them the things you would like for their education, their religious training, and even their extra-curricular activities. Read what you’ve written and update it each year as your child grows and their interests change. You should also talk to the person you’ve selected about these wishes.
Ways to Make the Choice Less Difficult
One way to approach making the decision if you’re having trouble making it is to make a pros and cons list for each potential guardian. If you and the child’s other parent disagree, make separate lists and compare them to find common ground. Make sure you choose at least one person to be an alternate in case your first choice isn’t able to take on the responsibility.
Remember that the person you choose to be guardian for your children likely will not raise your child. Odds are good that at least one of the parents will survive until the child reaches adulthood. You are simply making these choices to ensure that your child will always be cared for.
You should also remember that no one will parent your child exactly as you do. You will likely have to make some compromises to find the right person for the guardian role. You also can change your mind. Review your choice every year and decide if it’s still the best one for your children.
When you have minor children, you shouldn’t wait too long to name someone to be their guardian should something happen to you and their other parent. If you don’t name someone, the court will make the decision, and you will have no input into the matter.