Anyone who has children can tell you: they change everything in your life. Your estate plan will need to be updated. Once a child comes into the mix, the inevitable question arises: if you and your spouse pass away or become legally incapacitated, who will care for your children? Do you ever take “grown-up” trips together? Perhaps Grandmother babysits while you are gone. But that is only a temporary solution. Have you selected someone to be your child’s legal guardian if something should happen to you, even something such as a severe or prolonged injury or illness?
After all, a guardian essentially “steps into” your shoes in the event you can no longer care for your child. While no one even wants to imagine this happening, acknowledging the possibilities and creating a plan will allow you to sleep better at night. The frightening fact is that if you do not make arrangements, and you are injured or killed, you may not have a voice in the decision regarding your child’s future care. The Court may make that decision for you. Worse yet, your family could end up in a lengthy and costly dispute over who will care for your children, which would mean additional heartbreak for all involved. By taking action now, you can carefully consider the possibilities and then choose a person or persons to entrust with your children and their finances.
This decision is fraught with complexity. How do you decide who would be the best guardian for your children?
Here are some factors to consider when choosing someone to take on this role:
1. Shared Values
Remember, the guardian is taking over your parenting role. Therefore, it makes sense to choose someone who shares your values, including religious beliefs. For instance, if you are not the religious type you may have objections to someone who would expect your child to join and regularly attend church. On the other hand, if you are a person of deep faith, you may wish to ensure your children receive the same religious experience and teaching that you would have provided for them. A friend once told me she thought the decision could be reduced to this simple question: will they be taught to step on a spider? Or save it?
2. Parenting Style
What kind of parent are you? Do you run a tight ship or do you embrace a more laissez-faire approach to raising children? Do you allow children to argue (respectfully) or do you consider that to be “sassing back?” Do you give your children an allowance? Do you expect them to adhere to a chore chart? Choosing someone who will both embrace and continue your parenting style is a key factor to consider.
3. Level of Involvement
Someone who travels all the time will not be able to regularly show up to your kids’ soccer games, gymnastics meets, band concerts, and live theater performances. For most, determining whether a potential guardian will be an active and engaged member in your child’s life is essential.
4. Health + Energy Levels
Age may be just a number, but when it comes to caring for your child for the long-term, it’s more than just a mental state. Ensuring someone is in sufficiently good health to withstand the challenges of raising a child and has the stamina to be able to keep up with him / her — especially during the younger years — is an important factor. This is often an issue when your children, and their grandparents, are getting older. You should revisit the question of guardian selection every 3 to 5 years.
5. Other Children
The fact that a potential guardian already has children should not be a deal breaker. However, you should consider how adding more children into an existing family will affect the dynamic, particularly when it comes to the ages and genders of the kids.
We all agree that money can’t buy happiness, but we know it can help provide a better life for your children. Choosing someone who has the resources to care for your children — even if you have left money behind for their care — is something that should be top of mind.
It’s also important to remember you can choose different individuals to manage your children’s finances and to care for them physically. One will be the guardian of the person and the other will be the guardian of the estate. Perhaps you know that one family member would be a wonderful and loving parent, but is not experienced when it comes to managing finances. In that case you may want to select a separate guardian to manage the children’s financial affairs.
Asking someone to serve as guardian and bring up your children is a big ask! Yes, it can be perceived as an honor, but such an immense responsibility can also require more than some persons are willing or able to accept. It is critical to ask your top candidates if they would be willing to serve, and you should name at least one alternate choice in case the first person becomes unavailable. Remember too that not being selected as guardian can cause hurt feelings with family members not chosen. But feeling guilt or a sense of obligation is not a reason to choose your child’s guardian. Remember to always prioritize what will be best for the child.
Every family consists of its own unique group of people and personalities, as well as its own interpersonal dynamics, so there are many important factors that should be taken into account in making plans for your children’s future.
An experienced estate planning attorney can help you work through difficult choices and then can do the legal work necessary to ensure your wishes are followed.