Many parents know that they should select guardians for their children, but the reality is that doing so can be difficult. It is emotionally draining to consider your own death and the thought of your children being parentless. The subject can also bring up difficult family politics. Not only must you and your spouse come to an agreement, which in itself can be challenging for some, but expectations from your parents, siblings and close friends can be nerve-racking. Nonetheless, the decision must be made, so if you are still having difficulty choosing a guardian, here is a 5 step process to guide you in choosing a guardian:
1. Draft a list of traits and qualities that are most important to you when it comes to choosing a guardian.
Here are some questions to get you started:
- What values do you want your children to have?
- What skills and experiences do you want your children to have?
- What sort of role models would you like your children to have?
- What parenting style would you prefer to see your children raised with?
- What sort of family environment would you prefer your children to be raised in?
- Do you have particular religious beliefs that you want your children to grow up with?
- Do any of your children have special needs that will need to be taken into consideration?
If you are going through this process with your spouse, start with each of you creating your own list, then combine lists to create a third list of important qualities. As a couple, try to roughly rank the qualities in terms of which are exceptionally important, important and merely desirable.
2. Begin generating a list of possible guardians.
Begin with an “inclusive” mindset, as you will have the opportunity to narrow the list later on. Do not limit yourself to family members. For some, a close friend may end up being a better fit for their families needs.
3. Start narrowing your list of potential guardians by comparing it with your list of qualities from Step 1.
In addition to those qualities also consider the following:
- Is the person physically able to care for your children?
- Does the person have a stable, responsible lifestyle?
- Does the person live locally or would your children need to be relocated?
- Does the person already have children? For some, presence of other children is desired to provide companionship. However, if you have many children, the burden on someone with their own children may be too substantial and you might wish to consider a childless couple.
It is common, when choosing guardians, to think in terms of couples, for example, “we want Bob and Susan to raise our children.” However, the best approach is to name guardians individually, otherwise you introduce the risk of dispute if the couple divorces or one spouse predeceases you. Let’s say, for example, that Bob predeceases you, the question is then raised of whether or not you would want Susan to raise your children on her own or if you would have picked someone else. Depending on your desires and the circumstances of those you are selecting, it may be a good idea to include certain qualifications, for example, you may state that you want want Bob and Susan as guardians, but if they were to divorce, you want Bob to raise your children. On the other hand, if your children are already being raised by Bob and Susan and Bob dies, you would want the children to remain with Susan for stability purposes. It may sound like overkill, but if you are going to take the time to select guardians, then it is worth taking the extra time to consider the contingencies and discuss them with your attorney.
Continuing narrowing your list until you are left with 3 to 5 guardians ranked in order of preference.
4. Approach each of the 3 to 5 potential guardians and ask whether they would be willing to serve as potential guardians for your children.
This may require a discission of both your expectations and the expectations of the potential guardian. The potential guardian may wish to know whether you will be leaving life insurance to provide for the children and whether they will have funded college education accounts, for example. If your choice of guardian declines the responsibility, try not to take it personally. Most likely the person has important reasons or concerns about their ability to take on the responsibility.
5. Make it legal.
Now that you’ve selected your guardians, you will need to indicate your wishes in a written, formally attested last will and testament. In many instances if you have minor children a trust will also be appropriate. An estate planning lawyer can guide you through this process and the particular requirements of your state.
You may also wish to write a letter of instruction. I plan to write more on letters of instruction in the future, but in short, a letter of instruction is a non-legally binding document that you may wish to leave with your last will and testament providing guidance, instructions and such to the letter’s recipient. So, for example, you might leave a letter of instruction to your appointed guardians regarding special wishes you have regarding the upbringing of your children.