When creating an estate plan, the primary emphasis is typically on the disposition of assets and the related tax concerns; however, one of the most crucial planning decisions you can make is choosing who will serve as guardian of your minor children.
The choice of guardian will not only set the course for the rest of several people’s lives, but also will contribute to the essence of who the minor children become. Furthermore, the failure to designate a guardian in your estate plan can put the lives of your children in the hands of the court system.
The guardian you designate will become a new parental figure for your children in the event that you are no longer able to care for them. Most importantly, the guardian will be charged with the responsibility of helping your children transition to life without one or both of their parents, and for passing on life skills, instilling values, and raising your children. Thus, it is paramount to select a guardian who understands the responsibilities accompanying the guardianship designation, and who has the time and interest to raise your children.
Choosing a guardian is no easy task, and involves objective and subjective assessments distinct from selecting other fiduciaries in your estate planning.
The first threshold to choosing a guardian involves finding someone who is willing to take on such an important job. The decision to serve as guardian for someone else’s minor children should be thoughtfully considered, as stepping into the role as surrogate parent will change the rest of the guardian’s life. A guardian without the proper understanding of the role he or she is to play for your children can result in significant legal and emotional problems for all interested parties, including your children and the guardian.
In addition to finding a person who is willing and able to take on the role of guardian, it is of utmost importance to choose someone who already has an established warm and loving relationship with your child. This type of existing relationship can be immensely valuable in such an emotionally trying transition for your children, as they cope with the trauma or sudden death of one or both of their parents.
Most people instinctively think that the “right” guardian for their minor children is a relative; however, in some circumstances, a non-family member may be a better fit. Choosing a family member as guardian may be the obvious choice, but if your children are uncomfortable, have never met, or rarely spend time with the family member, it may not be the right choice to name him or her as guardian. Rather, it may be the case that a close friend or neighbor who is present in your children’s lives and better understands your values in raising your children may be the “right” choice. Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to name a family member versus a non-family member is specific to your family dynamic and lifestyle.
Another important factor to consider when choosing a guardian is the individual’s job situation and financial stability, as adding surrogate children into their life will raise his or her living costs exponentially. You must balance the person’s willingness to take on the significant responsibility of raising your children with their ability to support your children financially in their future endeavors. Ultimately, if you think someone is the “right” guardian but are worried about the stress added children will have on their finances, you may consider designating them as beneficiaries in other areas of your estate plan to ensure they have enough money to raise your children according to your values.
Finally, you may be tempted to choose a couple as the co-guardians of your minor children in hopes that they will be raised in a traditional nuclear family setting. Unfortunately, designating a couple as co-guardians may be problematic in the event that they divorce or the preferred guardian in the couple dies or is otherwise no longer able to serve in the role. As a result, it is often preferable to name one or more alternates in case the first choice for guardian is unavailable to ensure your wishes can be carried out and your children’s lives are not at the discretion of a judge.
Once you have carefully considered the foregoing factors and designated a guardian in your estate plan, it is just as important to remember to revisit your choice as circumstances change to adapt to the needs of your children and abilities of your selected guardians. These choices should be revisited at least every five years to confirm that your chosen guardian is still the “right” choice for your children.