One of the most common stumbling blocks parents encounter when writing a will or a trust is deciding who will be appointed as guardian for their children should they die while their kids are still minors.
It’s a tough question, and an important one, so many parents do the worst thing they can and put off the decision for another day. And that means the decision, if it becomes necessary, can be made by a judge in probate court, which means a stranger could decide who will raise your kids.
Questions to consider when appointing a guardian for your children
If you’re stuck on how to choose a guardian, the following series of questions can provide some clarity on the issue and help you reach a decision.
Many of these questions will take some thought, so you might not be able to answer right away. That’s OK. Answer what you can in the first sitting and set a deadline to finish the rest.
Who are all the candidates?
Listen to your gut instincts and make a list of potential guardians for your children, then answer the remaining questions with these people in mind.
Is it likely that the candidate(s) will live for many years?
Remember, you are planning for a situation in which your kids have just lost their parents, and losing their new guardians can be twice as devastating. For example, if you are considering choosing grandparents to look after your children, make sure you consider their age.
How is the candidates’ health?
Are they physically and mentally able to accept the responsibility? Do they have the energy? This is another consideration for grandparents. They may be great as weekend babysitters, but having your kids permanently is a very different notion.
Do the candidates have kids of their own? If not, do they know how to raise children? If so, would adding yours to their household be too much for them to handle?
Raising a family is expensive and hectic, particularly for two-income families. Your proposed guardians already may have a full plate. Conversely, if they don’t already have kids, ask yourself how confident you are that they’ll know how to raise children?
Do the candidates have time to raise your kids?
Are they a two-career family or does one parent stay home and have the time to devote to raising a newfound family? Similarly, the individuals you choose as guardians for your kids may already have multiple kids of their own they’re shuttling to school, activities, sports practices and more.
What are the candidates’ views on education and religion?
Would they choose home-schooling, private school or a public education? Do they encourage attending (and saving for) higher education? Do they share your religious beliefs? Will the candidates raise your children with the same values and cultural traditions as you would have provided?
Where do the candidates live?
Moving your kids to a new place after losing their parents can make a difficult transition even more difficult, for they will have lost not only their parents, but everything they are familiar with – school, friends, teams, nearby relatives, favorite places and pastimes. You’ll want to try to avoid this problem, but sometimes the best candidate doesn’t live nearby.
Are the candidates a married couple?
If so, you might want to consider adding a statement about who gets your kids if they divorce. And if one of them dies, would you feel comfortable letting the survivor raise your kids?
Are the candidates financially secure?
While you shouldn’t let wealth (or lack thereof) be the sole basis for choosing one candidate over another, you do want to know your kids will be in a financially stable and safe environment. While you probably want to leave most of your assets to your kids, be realistic about the financial impact raising them will have on their guardians.
The guardians are likely to incur expenses associated with raising your kids, such as adding a room onto their house or buying a bigger car, plus, basic needs such as providing food each day, so you should make some of your assets available to help them. Thus, you must carefully balance several issues: You want your money used for the benefit and welfare of your kids and to have the assets available to help the guardian as needed, but at the same time, you want to protect against the squandering of the assets by the guardians or others. A good estate planning attorney can help you achieve these goals.
Can I change my mind after appointing a guardian for my child?
As you consider these questions, feel free to change your mind. You also may find that you prefer certain people for some questions but not others. That’s OK, too. This process is all about identifying the strengths and weaknesses of potential guardians for your child.
Often, the most appropriate person is the one who scored generally well, as opposed to one who scored great in some areas but terrible in others.
Keep in mind that nothing will change by waiting. If you have only three choices, and none of them satisfy you, waiting won’t create more choices or increase the attractiveness of your current choices. Which means you should choose someone.
Pick the guardian who satisfies the most of your criteria. After choosing, be sure to ask your choice to accept the nomination, but ask them to sleep on it, and require that their partner, if any, give their consent as well.
Above all, remember: Failure to make a choice is itself a choice.
Until you name someone, you are allowing the probate court to decide, where all the people you considered above (and possibly others) may be appointed by the judge on your behalf.
If the thought of making a choice seems too difficult, remember that you can always change your mind. If your parents seem the best option today, pick them. In a few years, when they’ve gotten older or their health declines, you can change your selection. Just base your decision on the facts as they are today, and rest assured that as times change and people change, your mind can change as well.