Choosing Your Child's Guardian - Part 1 of 4

Choosing a person or family to care for your children is difficult.  In fact, for many families, it’s the hardest part of planning their estate.  It’s not easy to think of anyone else, no matter how loving, raising your child.  Yet, you can make a tremendous difference in your child’s life by planning ahead.  And you have nothing to lose except a few moments thinking about what you value most in life, and in childrearing.

Anyone with a child under the age of 18 must consider who would raise that child if they were unable to.  Of course, we all imagine the worst-case scenario – our own premature deaths – when we consider this.  But there is a less tragic, and common, situation in which naming a guardian is crucial: incapacity.  If you and your spouse were unable to care for your children temporarily, who would watch over them while you recovered?

The younger your child, the more crucial this choice is, because very young children cannot form or express their own preferences about caregivers.  Yet young children are not the only ones who benefit from careful parental attention to guardianship.  Children close to 18 years old will be legal adults soon, but, as you well know, a parent’s job does not end when the child reaches 18.  By naming and talking about your choice of guardian, you can encourage a lifelong bond with a caring family.

The nomination of guardians is a straightforward aspect of any family’s estate plan.  It can be as basic or detailed as you want.  You can simply name the person or persons who would act if both you and your spouse were unable.  Or you can provide detailed guidance about your children and the sort of experiences and family environment you would like for them.  Our firm almost always recommends that it is best to leave detailed guidelines regarding the care of your children, including information on how you have raised them, your philosophies about religious upbringing, discipline, education, etc.  The more detailed the instructions, the closer your children will be raised according to your family’s values. 

So how do you actually choose the right guardian?  You may have too many loving family members to count.  How do you choose between them?  Or you may be from small families and wonder if you can find anyone suitable.  Either way, you can make good choices by following our 4-step process.

This is the first part of a 4-part series where we will walk you through the process of choosing a guardian for your children.

Step One: Make a List

Make a long list of everyone you know who might possibly be a good guardian.  When considering whether someone should be on the list, ask yourself, “would they provide a better home for my children than the foster care system?”  If the answer is yes, put them down.  If the answer is no, note that too, for you may wish to express that under no circumstances should these people be made the guardians of your precious children.  Your list could contain dozens of names but should have at least 3 or 4 people or couples before you call it a day. 

Think beyond your immediate family.  Parents have chosen cousins, aunts & uncles, grandparents, child care providers, business partners and friends to serve as guardians.  Consider long-time friends and those you’ve gotten to know at parenting groups.  They may share similar philosophies about child rearing.  Do not eliminate people from your list for financial reasons unless they lack basic money management skills.  Sufficient life insurance or other assets in a well-drafted Children’s Trust can ensure your children’s material well being.

Temporary & Permanent Guardians

Consider the difference between “temporary” guardians and “permanent” guardians.  Temporary guardians may be appointed to care for your children if both parents become disabled but will eventually recover (a car accident, for example).  Permanent guardians would be appointed if both parents have died.   If you are unable to physically care for your children, you may want them to stay in town close to you, with the least amount of disruption to their normal routine.   This would entail naming a “temporary” guardian who lives locally or who could move into your home on a short term basis.  On the other hand, if you have died, it may be best for the children to move to wherever the appointed guardian is living, so they can begin to establish themselves in their new town and new school.

The Guardianship Panel

Finally, for the greatest flexibility, consider using a Guardianship Panel to appoint your children’s guardians.  The panel can consist of family members, loved ones and trusted friends who will decide together as a group who would be the best guardian for your children when and if the time comes. 

Guardianship Panels allows for tremendous flexibility, since a named guardian might be appropriate at one time or stage in your child’s life, but may not be appropriate when the child is older and the child and/or the guardian now have different needs and desires.  The Panel members are able to consult with your children as they grow up and, depending on the children’s desires and what is in the child’s best interests, the panel can then appoint appropriate guardians after taking the current situation into account.  

NEXT WEEK: Choosing Your Child's Guardian - Part 2: Deciding What Matters Most