Choosing a Guardian for Your Children

Planning for the future is pretty difficult when you consider it’s impossible to know what’s going to happen.  What we CAN do is prepare for, and protect against, events which, however unlikely, we know to be possibilities. One unlikely possibility is the passing of parents which leaves behind a minor child.  Naming guardians for your children is one of the most important benefits you can provide in your will.

There are two main issues to consider regarding children: who becomes guardian if there is no surviving parent and in what manner should assets be inherited? Today, I simply want the focus on guardianship.  

Guardianship: Undoubtedly, it is difficult to contemplate leaving behind a young child upon the passing of a parent or parents. However, it is essential to provide for this kind of tragedy in a will to ensure that your children continue to get the love, nurturing, and guidance that help develop young people into thriving adults. Clearly, deciding who will raise your children under these circumstances is vital to the estate planning process. Most parents don’t want a judge deciding who raises their children. Most parents wouldn’t want to see their families fighting over custody, trying to one-up each other in court in an attempt to convince a judge that they deserve him/her more than others do. You can help prevent this by making the decision yourself and naming guardians in your will.

How to Choose?: My recommendation is always, first and foremost, to choose people with whom you have a wonderful relationship and who you believe will make loving parents to your children. If they already have kids, that may be great because they have experience raising children. If they’re relatively young, that may be great because they’ll (ideally) be able to grow and age with your child. Siblings can make great guardians, and so can close friends. I remember at around age five, my parents told me that their best friends would take care of my sister and me should something happen to them both. This was a tremendous comfort, knowing that someone would be there for me no matter what might happen.  

Grandparents as Guardians: One of the first questions I’m typically asked is whether grandparents make good guardians. Presumably, if that’s in consideration, those grandparents were wonderful and loving parents, having raised you to have children of your own, and know a thing or two about parenting. In reality though, I tend to discourage this choice for a few practical reasons.

Age and energy. None of us are getting any younger and as we age we typically lose the energy we once had. I observed this in my grandparents, and am currently watching the same development with my parents. This isn’t universally true, of course, but generally so. As your child gets older, so too will your parents, and the thought of an eighty-something year-old raising a teenager isn’t particularly practical nor appealing. 

 The grandparent relationship. The relationship between grandparent and grandchild is special. I loved my grandparents dearly, and that relationship was unique from every other relationship I’d had and will ever have. When grandparents become parents, as guardians, that kind of relationship transforms into something different, depriving both the children and the grandparents of its benefits. 

Finances. This factor varies from person to person, but typically grandparents aren’t in the best financial position to raise children. Retirement planning doesn’t contemplate the expense of raising a young child, and anyone with kids knows the kind of financial burden they can put on the parents. Consider that burden falling upon a couple who have likely stopped earning new money and have planned for a certain financial outlook during retirement. It’s simply not ideal. You should absolutely ensure that your estate plan creates a trust for the benefit of your children, so you can have some control over the ages and amounts they’ll receive if you pass away prematurely. This will also aid any guardian in the added cost inherent in raising additional children.

So, to summarize, please ensure that you have a will in place, particularly if you have young children. You may want to talk to your kids about this. Even if they’re young, you can’t underestimate the emotional value that this conversation may provide.  Consider guardians who are age appropriate and will be loving to your children. If possible, allow grandparents to be grandparents. Most importantly, do something! Inaction is your worst enemy. Whatever you decide, please make sure you have an estate plan in place to protect your children