During one of my recent client consultations we discussed the difficulty for them to chose their guardian(s) for their children. Whether or not to include a spouse, who should be alternates, what if one of the couples chosen get's divorced, etc. Choosing guardians is probably the hardest decision for parents to make in the estate planning process.
In my research about a way to help "simplify" this process for my clients, I found a great article written by an attorney in Thousand Oaks, CA. I don't want to improperly reproduce her article without her permission, but I would like to recap some of her wise and helpful ideas.
First, she wanted to remind parents that when naming guardians, we are not just choosing who will take care of your children when you die, but who will take care of your children if you become incapacitated or incompetent.
It was noted that parents should really provide as much detail as they desire about not just who will raise their children, but how. Basically what this will allow for example, is if college education is very important to you then you can express that the guardians strive to ensure that your children go to college. If your family religion is very important to you, you can express that your child continue to be exposed to and participate in their religion. You can be as detailed as you want to ensure that your children continue to be raised with the same morals and values you would instill in them if you were still there to raise them.
She went out to list out four basic steps for parents to chose a guardian.
The first step was to "Make a List"
It was recommended that the list be long, including anyone who you think might be a good guardian. This would mean, people you would chose over the foster system basically. In doing this, also list those you would absolutely NEVER want to raise your children. You can specifically exclude someone if you want. If you are having trouble making a long list, be sure to come up with at least 3-4 though. This list can include family members, friends, colleagues, etc. especially if they have similar values to you. Remember, the person(s) who takes over as guardian for your children does NOT need to be the same person who acts as trustee over their money, so don't limit your list because of financial considerations.
The article also discussed the difference between Temporary & Permanent Guardians and your ability to chose both if that feels better for you.
Temporary guardians are basically for a certain defined time period. They may be appointed to care for your children if you become temporarily disabled or even for a short time to finish the school year out before having to move to a new city, state or country even.
Permanent guardians would be the ones to care for your children until the age of majority when you pass away. (You don't need to have separate Temporary and Permanent Guardians named, but in some situations, you may feel it would be best)
A new concept she discussed was a "Guardianship Panel" which is basically a collection of people you name (friends, family, maybe even a doctor) who will decide who would be the best caretaker for your children. Personally, I don't think this is the best "first" option as it can lead to a lot of disagreements. I think as a last resort if all named guardians are not able to serve or chose not to serve, it might be okay.
The second step was to write down "What Matters Most". Factors she states to consider about a prospective guardian are:
• child-rearing philosophy
• presence of children in the home already
• interest in and relationship with your children
• ability to meet the physical demands of child care
• presence of enough "free" time to raise children
• religion or spirituality
• integrity pets
• potential conflicts of interest with your children
• willingness to serve
• social and moral habits and values
• marital or family status
• willingness to adopt your children
I would write these in order of importance, then see how each potential guardian measures up.
Once again, don't let money issues guide you. For example, let's say you have been a stay-at-home mom and want to be certain your children continue to haven a parent at home full time if you should die. But what if your top choice for a guardian works full-time and her children are in day care? What you can do is properly prepare financially with life insurance and investments to be able to provide adequate financial support so that the guardian you want to raise your children is able to stay at home and raise your children.
The third step was to "Match People to Priorities"
After you measured everyone up based on the above factors, narrow your list down to 3-4. Rank those in order, and there you go!
Now that you have your list, as I would ask my clients, ask yourself: what if that couple you name first should get divorced, what if one of them dies? Are you willing for either of the two to raise them on their own, or would you rather move down the list to your next choice of guardian? In some cases, it may be best to only name one person than that person and their spouse.
The final/fourth step "Make it Positive"
This will be an opportunity for parents to really share their thoughts, hopes, and fears with each other. Hopefully the two of you can grow from the process. Remember as well, when you make your wishes know, and detail them out, and share them with your intended guardians for your children:
• The relationship between all parties may increase
• As parents, you have a mutually focused idea of what you want for your children and can share this with your named guardians.
• You will know what you want to achieve with your children while you are still there for them.
So once it is all said and done, you will have "secured your peace of mind" and will rest easier at night knowing your children will be cared for according to YOUR wishes, whatever may come your way.
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