What's your worst fear as a parent? If you're like many people, it's the prospect of dying prematurely and not being able to care for your young children.
Unfortunately, you have limited control over your health and the length of your life. But you have nearly total control over making sure your children are cared for. If anything should happen to you, they'll need a guardian to stand in your place, and you have the ability to choose whom that will be. If you fail to make a choice, a court will decide for you. The person a court decides—typically a close relative—may not be the person you would choose.
Therefore, it's critical that you think about whom to appoint as your child's guardian in your will or power of attorney. Failing to clearly and effectively appoint a guardian can lead to a legal battle that will be devastating for your child and the rest of your family. The decision can be overwhelming, but here are some tips to guide you.
If your kids are going to live with a legal guardian, that means neither of their parents are available to care for them. Their world has been upended, and you want to preserve as much stability as possible for them. You may want to think twice about choosing a guardian who lives in California, say, if you live in Ohio. It will likely be best for your kids to be able to stay in their same school, around their friends, and in a familiar environment.
Some of the things you look for in a friend are the same as those you'll want in your children's guardian: trustworthiness, warmth, loyalty. But some of the things you value in a friend may not necessarily be what your children need in a substitute parent. Imagine experiencing your friend through your children's eyes; are they getting the attention, discipline, and support they need? A good guardian for your children will have a parenting style similar to your own and a strong character.
Think about what your child's place in a potential guardian's family will be. There are advantages and disadvantages to placing your children with a guardian who has children of their own. On the one hand, other children could be a source of comfort and support to yours; on the other, there's a risk that your children might take second place to the guardian's own children—and that they might feel it. What actually plays out depends on the people involved, so this is a judgment only you can make.
Many people choose the best parents they know as their children's guardian: their own. This is often a good solution, but don't assume that just because your parents adore your children they're prepared to raise them. Especially if they're older, health concerns may preclude them from being as active and involved as your children need them to be. Similarly, if their health concerns are serious, your children risk losing a second set of parents before they're adults, which could be traumatizing.
Ideally, you will have taken out life insurance on yourself, with the policy held in a trust for your children's benefit (If the named beneficiary on the policy is a minor child, the court will need to appoint a property guardian). That way, your children's guardian will not be financially burdened by their care and your children will be financially secure. The person in charge of the children's money need not be their guardian, but many parents choose the same person for both roles for the sake of the guardian's convenience. If you do, make sure your guardian is reliable and trustworthy in financial matters.
Most people like to choose a family member as guardian. This has obvious advantages: the children are likely familiar and comfortable with their new guardian, and have built in contact with extended family on at least one side. This contributes to children's sense of stability. However, there are situations in which family may not be ideal. Perhaps you live far from your family, which means the children would have to be uprooted to live with them. Maybe a close friend from church or your children's school is better equipped to provide your child with a stable home than your family.
Whomever you choose as a guardian, make sure they will be committed to helping the children stay connected with as much of their biological family as possible.
Last but not least, make sure the guardian you have in mind is ready, willing, and able to serve as your children's guardian. Being asked to serve in this capacity is a great honor, but also a tremendous commitment. People may have many reasons they can't, or don't want to, serve as your children's guardian. Those reasons must be respected, no matter how ideal the prospective guardians would otherwise be.
It's critical to communicate about this well in advance of naming someone a guardian in your will, and it should ideally be a series of conversations. Introduce the topic at one time in a private setting, asking your chosen guardian to think about it without asking them to give you a commitment at that moment, even if they want to. Check back in at least a couple of weeks later, asking if they have any questions or have made a decision.
For more information on how to appoint a guardian for your child, and to take steps to safeguard your child's emotional and financial future, make an appointment with an experienced Ohio probate and estate planning lawyer.