You’re a parent of minor children—do you know what would happen to your children if something happened to you?
Maybe one of your siblings would step in or perhaps an aging parent. Maybe you were rushing to get out of town last year and sent a quick email to a friend or family member saying who you’d want as guardian of your children if something happened to you while away.
What does legal “guardian” mean anyway? A guardian is someone designated to act as a parent for minor children when they lose their own. It can mean someone you’ve named in a properly executed legal document or, absent that, a person a judge chooses to be guardian of your children.
But it’s not guaranteed that a family member will be appointed if it’s ultimately up to a judge; it’s totally up to that judge and what they think is best. And whoever is appointed guardian is not automatically in charge of your children’s inheritance. (We know, there’s a lot to think about here!)
Whoever serves as guardian for your children determines what their future looks like. How do you know who the best guardian is?
Consider these 10 tips.
Short-term versus long-term. This might be one of the most often overlooked aspects of choosing a guardian. If your long-term guardian lives out of town or out of state, or is simply unavailable (busy at a meeting, on vacation, and so on), appointing short-term guardians is crucial to avoid having your children taken into the custody of the state to be cared for by strangers to you and your children.
Parenting style and philosophy. Ensuring that a guardian has the same values and ideals as you makes it much more likely that your children would have a seamless transition during a tumultuous time.
Religion or spirituality. It’s completely up to the guardian how to raise your children, including their religious or spiritual upbringing. Think through the list of potential guardians and compare their religious or spiritual leanings to your own.
Your child’s relationship with family members or friends. When your children are very young they haven’t quite had enough time to nurture a very close bond with anyone other than you, in which case choosing a guardian is more about who best fits the other factors on this list. But as your children grow, they’ll grow close and more attached to family members or friends—perhaps even ones you didn’t expect. As they create these relationships, it’s important to be sensitive to this and select a guardian who already knows your children very well and whom they trust.
Ability to care for children. The best guardian is one who is both able and willing to care for minor children not their own. Communication is key; be sure to check with a potential guardian to make sure they’re willing and able.
Where the potential guardian lives. While your children are young they may not notice a move at all. But once they get older, consider how and whether uprooting them from their friends and familiar surroundings might be more harmful than helpful.
The guardian’s financial resources shouldn’t matter. Ideally you’re leaving behind a decent inheritance to cover the cost of raising your children versus relying on someone else to come up with the money. The most obvious and common way is via life insurance, and as you grow older additional ways include retirement and savings accounts as well as equity in your home. At the same time, how well a potential guardian handles their own finances speaks to other personality traits that may make them an ideal choice as guardian of your children.
Whether they have children of their own. Sometimes the best choice is a guardian who has their own children, and other times the best choice is someone who doesn’t. It depends on the personalities of both your children and the potential guardian, and how well everyone in the guardian’s own family would adjust to a big change. Again, communication is key.
Choosing a couple versus a single guardian. When you name a couple to serve jointly as guardians, walk through what happens if they get divorced or if one is in an accident. Would you want your children to stay with only one parent, or is either okay?
Elect a guardianship panel. Because it’s difficult to predict what your children’s needs will be as they grow up, consider appointing a “Guardianship Panel” to decide who might be the best guardian for your children. Trusted family members and friends can make up the panel. In the right circumstances this can potentially provide maximum flexibility ensuring the most appropriate decision about guardian is made at the time it’s actually needed. The panel could even consider your children’s input when they’re an appropriate age.