Who will raise my kids if I can’t? This is a huge and unthinkable question. So it’s no wonder that I frequently hear a multitude of excuses from family, friends and clients – all the parents of young children – who have not yet set up their essential estate plans.
Often, the hurdle isn’t finding the right lawyer, or spending the money to get it done. It’s making that gut-wrenching decision about who to designate as the guardians of your minor children in your stead.
As unpleasant as the task may be, the consequences of postponing it are worse. In the absence of carefully prepared estate-planning documents with proper designation directions, you’re effectively leaving it up to a judge to decide what is in the best interest of your children, without your input. If you’re facing this sort of wall in your family’s estate-planning process, the following steps may help you make the necessary leap from best intentions to appropriate action.
Get Ready: Creating Planning Momentum
First, list the people that come immediately to mind as the most likely candidates. Go with your gut, because your first instincts may well be the right ones.
Next, narrow down your choices by considering the key questions listed below. For now, don’t try to come up with THE right choice (unless it’s no-brainer obvious). Simply take note of the advantages and disadvantages for each possibility. If you are a couple, think about these questions individually before coming together to share your answers.
Are they young enough? Your parents may already have a track record for raising great kids. But are they still up to the emotional and physical challenge of being there for the long haul? Are they able to offer stability in place of the deep loss your children will have experienced? My mom loves to have our kids over for a night or two. But what if that commitment was for the rest of her life?
Are they mature enough? It is not easy to raise children, I know. There’s a lot of stress involved with making decisions for your little ones. Do the guardians you are considering already have children of their own? Have you been able to observe their parenting techniques? If they’ve chosen not to have children, is there a reason they may not be up to the challenge of raising yours?
Do they have the time? Even if potential guardians have done well in bringing up their own children, would additional charges be too much to ask of them? Have they expressed, or demonstrated, that they already are at wit’s end with their own full lives?
Do the logistics work? My wife’s family lives 750 miles away. If one of them were chosen to raise my children, somebody at one end or the other would be forced to abandon familiar friends, neighbors, schools and existing support systems. The logistics may ultimately be unavoidable and necessary for your child’s best interests, but it’s something to be aware of as you think things through.
Do they share your values? We have friends who choose to home school their children, friends with different or no religious beliefs, friends who express different views on parental discipline and friends who may not otherwise share a number of our own values. While this may not preclude them from being good friends – variety is the spice of life – it may make a guardianship role less than ideal.
Are they financially fit? You will do your best to leave a legacy for your children. But will it be enough to offset the costs of dropping them into someone else’s home? Doing so may require an addition, or even a move to a larger house. And any number of other unexpected financial obligations may arise. Have your potential guardians demonstrated the ability to make good decisions with respect to their own (and potentially your children’s) financial well-being?
Take Aim: Balancing Guardianship Priorities
Now that you’ve taken the time to think through the advantages and disadvantages for each potential guardian, you’re ready to start making the more challenging judgment calls – this time, in concert with your spouse or partner.
With any luck, you may discover that you’ve reached common ground with your individual ideas. Conversely, one of you may have come up with a helpful, “out of the box” idea that might not have arisen from a joint conversation. If you’re not yet seeing eye-to-eye, you’ll also have a list of reasonable talking points to guide what can otherwise be an emotionally charged conversation.
By listing pros and cons and comparing notes, you are best positioned to determine which issues seem important but resolvable with good planning, which issues may be unresolvable but something you can accept if you must, and which issues seem like show-stoppers. After evaluating your options, your final choice of guardian will likely impact how you plan to proceed, given your unique circumstances.
- On the financial front, you may realize you need more life insurance coverage to help your designated guardian take on the additional financial burden of caring for your children.
- Your estate plan may need to be especially flexible to handle unknowns that may arise, or specially structured to help manage specific challenges (such as a special needs child).
- You may determine that financial and custodial guardianships are best assigned to different individuals, each of whom is best suited to one but perhaps not both of those roles.
- You may need to consider whether your children would be better cared for by different guardians if their needs and personalities vary widely.
Fire-Up Your Estate-Planning Engine
Armed with your informed outlook, it’s time to choose! Make choices you and your spouse or partner both can agree on. Your selections may not be perfect, or even your personal top picks. But they’re likely to be a significant improvement over having made no choice at all.
If you are finding it difficult to designate the best guardian for your child, imagine how much harder it will be on your family if one must be appointed and your thoughts on the matter have never been documented. In addition, it’s traumatic enough for a child to lose both parents. The stress of forced adjustment is only magnified if there is conflict in appointing an appropriate guardian.
Be sure to ask your would-be guardians if they are comfortable accepting the role before you name them in your estate plans. Ask them to sleep on it, and require that any spouse or partner consent as well.
With the guardian role(s) determined, you can now prepare the necessary logistics. There can be a number of players involved:
- Your insurance agent assists with the appropriate amount and type of coverage your plans require.
- Your estate planning attorney offers counsel and translates your intentions into the necessary legal set-up.
- Your investment professional provides investment advice and portfolio management.
- Your wealth manager coordinates the team’s varied efforts, eliminating gaps and overlaps that may otherwise occur during set-up, ongoing maintenance and, should it become necessary, implementation of your carefully laid plans.
- You may want to share your decisions with key family members, religious advisors or others who you feel can offer support to your children and their designated guardians during what will no doubt be a difficult time for all concerned.
Thankfully, my wife and I are now a number of years past the days when our own three children were toddlers. But the years have flown by so swiftly that the gut-wrenching anxiety any parent faces when planning for the unthinkable remains as fresh as ever.
Bottom line, it is our responsibility to provide for our children while they grow up, even if we are not present to do it ourselves. If you’ve been postponing the difficult decision on designating custodial and financial guardians for your children, you owe it to your family to take that first step, and then the next. Let us know if we can help.
The opinions expressed by featured authors are their own and may not accurately reflect those of the BAM ALLIANCE. This article is for general information only and is not intended to serve as specific financial, accounting or tax advice.
© 2015, The BAM ALLIANCE