It’s a difficult question for any parent to answer—and a painful eventuality to even consider. Certainly Jan and Alex never imagined the accident that would leave their six-year-old daughter an orphan.
When their child was born, Alex’s sister and her husband became godparents and promised their niece would always be cared for. But Jan and Alex never created a will or appointed a guardian. Over the years, Alex’s sister had two children of her own, was divorced, and moved to another city for work. When Jan and Alex died, she was not prepared for the personal and financial responsibilities of raising her niece.
It’s a scenario no loving parent wants for his or her child and no loving aunt—or uncle or grandparent or close friend, for that matter—should be thrown into without adequate preparation.
Naming a Guardian
Every child deserves a willing guardian to provide loving care when parents cannot. Naming a guardian for your children, and an alternate in case your initial choice cannot fulfill the responsibility, is one of the most important things you can do to ensure their future.
Legally, naming a guardian is a pretty straightforward process. Just include in your will the name of the adult you wish the court to appoint as your child’s personal guardian.
Personally, it’s much more complicated. In fact, because guardianship is such an emotional issue, it is a primary reason many people put off creating necessary wills and estate plans. But the consequences of delay can be devastating. If you don’t name a guardian for your child, any member of your family can ask the court to be appointed, and thereby control your child’s finances and immediate future.
Important Considerations in Selecting a Guardian
Whether you’re considering options for your child’s guardian, or considering a request to become a guardian for a loved one’s child, there are many things that deserve careful thought. Before you decide on a guardian—or decide to accept the responsibility of being named a guardian—consider the following:
Would the prospective guardian have the necessary attributes to be a good parent? In other words, does the person have the love, the time, the interest, the physical stamina and good health to care for your children until they reach adulthood?
Will the person have the necessary financial abilities to manage the assets you leave your children? It is permissable to name one person as personal guardian for your children and a different person as financial guardian to manage the assets you leave them.
Does the prospective guardian have the resources to provide for your children should your estate prove insufficient? This person may need to purchase a larger home. Raising children and financing their education can be an expensive proposition. There may be financial help available, if necessary. Minor children are eligible for Social Security benefits until they reach age 18 (or 19 if they are still in high school), for example. There are also certain scholarships targeted for orphan children.
How would the guardianship affect your children? Do they already have a loving relationship with the prospective guardian? Will they have to change schools or move to another city? Will there be other children in the new family structure? Will the new family share their culture and religious beliefs?
After You’ve Made Your Decision
Naming a guardian is not sufficient if you haven’t discussed your decision with the person you choose.
A court will not force anyone to serve as guardian, so you need to ensure that your prospective guardian is willing to assume the responsibility. Discuss your wishes for your children and the financial provisions you have made for their future.
As part of your estate plan, you can also write your personal guardian a letter to describe important aspects of how you want your child to be raised.