Choosing a guardian will typically be covered with a simple paragraph in your will, but it might be the hardest decision to make in your entire estate plan. Protecting a couple’s children is almost always the first priority, and it is often the main reason come to my office to look at their estate plan. But this critical issue can also be a sticking point for many without a plan in place. If this is you, then here are ten basic tips for helping you find the best solution to this essential decision.
- Determine The Core Values You Want To Pass On
What sort of person would you like your children to become when they reach adulthood? Do you want them to be kind? Ambitious? Thrifty? Resourceful? Do you want them to be a free thinker? Religious? Political? Should your children be a sports fan, or maybe appreciate the arts? Chances are you and your spouse (or co-parent) have discussed these issues and each of your have your ideas on the subject.
Generally, we have a core set of values that define who we are and these core values are what we aim to pass along to our children. Who in your life closely resembles these values? Family is a great place to start, but don’t be afraid to branch out to friends and co-workers as well.
- Focus On The Needs Of Your Children
A common phrase in the business world is that you should “keep the end user in mind.” This is a fancy way of saying that products should be designed for the consumers who will actually use them rather than retailers or producers. In this context there is only one group of end users you need to focus on, i.e. your children. Your children’s needs should be as or more important than the values you want to pass along.
Pay attention to the ability a potential guardian will have to care for the demands of your children. If your child has a physical or emotional condition that demands more attention this is even more important.
- Ignore Family Politics
The spoken and unspoken expectations of family can set barriers in your mind and shorten the list of potential candidates for guardian. The problem is that an unnecessarily short list cuts off candidates who may be the right solution for your children. Don’t let your fear of what your family might think limit the choices you have to find the right guardian for your children. Remember the bottom line is finding the best guardian available; being a family member should not be a prerequisite for this position.
- Look To People Your Children Know And Trust
Who are the adults in your friends and family that your children know well? Who takes the time to go beyond merely talking with your children and plays with them? Who are the adults in your life that see your children’s room? Who are your children comfortable with? These are the people who will probably provide the smoothest transition for your children if the worst happens.
- Engage The Issue
Fear and apathy are a powerful combination for estate planning in general, but these two are and especially potent when looking at guardians for your children. The topic of our own mortality is uncomfortable, and the thought of our children having to fend for themselves is even worse. It’s easy to turn away from this thought and try and convince ourselves that these tragedies happen to other people. Unfortunately this comfort comes at the expense of our children’s future and the only solution is to face the problem head on.
Find ways you are comfortable with to attack the problem. Reserve an evening to talk through the issue with your spouse or co-parent. Reach out to a confidant and reliable sounding board. If you have to break out the old legal pad and make pro and con lists. Any strategy that allows you to take this issue a step beyond mere musings in your head will be invaluable to help you come to a decision.
- Talk To Everyone Involved
A plan needs to be more than simply words on paper. It is essential that potential guardians understand their role and be willing to accept it. It is also essential that friends and family members who are not chosen but may expect to be know what is happening and why. The dialogue may be awkward but it is necessary to prepare your emergency response team and avoid painful litigation.
- Don’t Worry About Money
Sounds easier said than done right? It may be hard to believe, but the issue of guardian is one particular decision that money should not revolve around. If you get wrapped in trying to figure out who can afford to raise your children you may forget who will be best at raising your children. Money can be forced into an estate in many ways when a tragedy occurs that would cause your children to lose their parents, with life insurance being the most common and reliable option. Take the luxury of forgetting about the money and focus on the parenting abilities your of guardian candidates.
- Be Aware Of The Practical Concerns
Every military strategy needs to be informed by the facts on the ground and choosing a guardian is no different. Time and time again we see that when a person takes on the responsibility of being a guardian for someone else’s child, the guardian’s life changes in numerous unexpected ways. However, you need to be aware of some of the things in your potential guardian’s life that will probably not change. What is the size of the person’s home and can it accommodate your children’s needs? What are the expectations of the person’s job? Can the potential guardian address the needs of your children while balancing his commitments to his family and the community? How reliable is the person with meeting commitments? How does this person keep discipline in her home?
- Keep Flexibility In The Plan
If you are naming a guardian in your Last Will and Testament then you will only get one shot at putting the right plan in motion for your children. As a result, you will want to make sure there are enough contingencies in place to ensure the plan can stay flexible through the ever changing landscape of day to day to life. Put in place alternative options for guardians if your first choice is unwilling or unable to serve. When choosing alternates be sure that at least one option is generation level equal to you, or even lower if appropriate. For example, your mother may be a good choice, but if she is in her fifties or sixties your sibling or friends a similar age may be a better option as backups.
- Accept That There May Not Be A Perfect Solution
All of these decisions are an imperfect response to an imperfect world, so don’t wait for the heavens to open up and drop an answer to you from on high. Instead, have the confidence to put together some sort of plan. The good news is that this plan can change, evolve and grow. That is the beauty of the estate planning process. The single worst thing you can do is nothing. Doing nothing means that your children are left to the whims of the courts.
The best person to make this decision is you. You know your children. You know your family. You know your friends. More than anyone else, you have the knowledge and experience to put the best plan in place for your children. Trust that knowledge and experience and how it leads you. Your instincts are probably better than you think and should lead you to an effective plan. So talk with an attorney and get something documented. Once you have a plan in place you can modify as necessary, but at least something will be in place to protect your children should the worst happen.