So many parents know they need to do an estate plan, but just avoid doing it. Often, what keeps them stuck is figuring out who to name as a guardian. But, here’s the thing, if you don’t name one, and a minor child is left without living parents, a judge is going to appoint someone to serve as that child’s legal guardian. And, sadly, that judge isn’t going to know you, your family, or your brother’s obnoxious wife. All that judge is going to know is who in your family steps forward and asks to be named as a child’s guardian. The judge’s job is to make an appointment that will be in the best interest of that child–and although the court will do its best to make that determination, who on earth is better equipped to make that choice than that child’s parents? Like many hard, grown-up choices we have to make, procrastination and denial just don’t help get us where we need to go.
Parents can nominate a guardian in a signed writing, but most use a Will to both nominate a guardian and plan for a child’s financial inheritance, putting something in place to manage that money for a child until a child’s old enough to manage it themselves.
If you can’t decide who to name as a guardian, here are a few suggestions for getting through that logjam:
1. Narrow your time frame: don’t try and solve the problem forever, plan for the next three to five years. You’ll most likely revisit your Will before then anyway. If right now your mother is the perfect guardian for your adorable toddler, name her. In ten years, when your daughter is now an adorable teenager, you may not think grandma’s the perfect choice. That’s just fine.
2. Realize that nothing’s perfect. You are probably not going to find a perfect substitute for yourselves (though your children may not entirely agree). Sometimes you have to figure out what you are willing to compromise on: maybe having your children on the West Coast is more important than having them with a sibling; maybe having your children in a house of your same faith is more important than geographical location; maybe your best friend from college would be a great guardian, even if she’d be a single mom.
3. Broaden your available pool of candidates. You aren’t required to name a family member as a guardian. Sometimes friends are the better choice. Think about who your children would be most comfortable with if you weren’t around to raise him or her. It may not be your oldest sibling.
4. Separate the custodial job from the financial job. Sometimes the perfect guardian would spend your children’s college money on ponies long before they get out of elementary school. If so, consider naming someone else to serve as that child’s financial guardian (called a guardian of the estate) or set up a trust to manage the child’s money and name another person to serve as Trustee.