The most common excuse offered by parents of young children for putting off writing a will isn't the thought of dying. No, what brings the process to an immediate halt is trying to decide who will raise the children.
Because of this question, many parents do the worst thing: nothing. And that means the decision, if it becomes necessary, will be made by a judge in probate court. Don't let that happen to you. Don't let a stranger decide who will raise your kids.
If you're stuck on how to choose a guardian, the following will help you:
With pen and paper, answer the following questions, providing as much detail as possible. If you are deciding as a couple, answer these questions separately and then compare your answers. Many of these questions will take some thought, so you might not be able to answer right away. That's okay. Answer what you can in the first sitting and set a deadline to finish the rest.
Question #1: Who are all the candidates?
Listen to your gut instinct and answer the remaining questions with these people in mind.
Question #2: Is it likely that the candidate(s) will live for many years?
Remember, you are planning for the event that your kids have just lost their parents ... losing your replacements can be twice as devastating. A lot of people want to name grandparents, but are your parents too old?
Question #3: How is the candidates' health?
Are they physically and mentally able to accept the responsibility? Do they have the energy? This is another caveat for grandparents. They may be great as weekend babysitters, but having your kids permanently is a very different notion. Are they up to it?
Question #4: 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 have kids, are you confident they know how to raise children?
Question #5: Do the candidates have time to raise your kids?
Are they a two-career family or does one parent stay home? Is one or the other particularly important to you?
Question #6: What are the candidates' views on education and religion?
Do you insist upon home-schooling or private 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?
Question #7: Where do the candidates live?
Moving your kids to some faraway place after losing their parents can make a difficult transition even more difficult, for they will have lost not only their parents, but literally everything they are familiar with — school, friends, nearby relatives, favorite places, and pastimes. You'll want to try to avoid this problem, but sometimes the best candidate doesn't live nearby. In such cases, perhaps the transition can be eased. For example, let them finish the school year where they are, if possible, or provide the money for them to visit friends for extended periods.
Question #8: Are the candidates a young 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?
Question #9: 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 all your money to your kids, be realistic about the financial impact raising them will have on their guardians. Indeed, the guardians are sure to incur expenses associated with raising your kids, such as adding a room onto their house or buying a bigger car, let alone providing food each day, so you should make your assets available to help them. Otherwise, the guardian (or the guardian's spouse or children) could become frustrated. 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 (maybe even your own kids!). A good estate planning attorney can help you achieve these goals.
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 okay, too. This process is all about identifying the strengths and weaknesses of potential guardians. 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.
If you are deciding as a couple, only after you each reach a decision should the two of you compare notes. By having written down the reasons for your preferences beside each question (and not just the names), each of you can better understand the other, and perhaps his or her reasoning is more sound than yours.
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.
Then: Choose someone! Pick a guardian you both can agree on, even if that means you each accept someone who is not necessarily your favorite. After choosing, be sure to ask your choice to accept the nomination. Force him or her to sleep on it, and require that his or her partner (if any) consent.
Above all, remember: Failure to make a choice is itself a choice. Until you name someone, you are agreeing to let the probate court decide, where all the people you considered above (and possibly others) will fight it out with the judge acting as referee. It's a very difficult task for a judge, since he or she has never met you and will have no idea what you would want. That's why judges often select the first family member to show up at the courthouse!
If the thought of making a choice sends you into a panic, 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 become ill, you can change your selection. Or maybe today's choice marries someone you don't like, or suffers a setback of some kind. No problem. 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.