Even though I preach that estate planning is for every adult at every stage of life, a lot of people don’t really start thinking about getting a will until they have kids. Responsibility gets real when there’s a tiny human being dependent on you. You know that if you leave a mess, your kid will be in the middle of it. But lots of parents run into a normal hurdle. How to pick a guardian. But I have four factors for picking a guardian that can help.
Maybe you have a ton of great choices and can’t decide among them. Maybe you have a bunch of not perfect choices. You just aren’t sure how to pick one side of the family or one friend over another. Decision. Paralysis.
But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. I’ve found when I talk this through with clients that are stuck, they’re able to figure it once we talk through a few factors. These four factors for picking a guardian are things that come to my mind as a mom thinking about kids in grief and as a lawyer thinking about what a judge will think through.
Wait. Did what I just say make you wrinkle your nose a bit? A common sales tactic in my industry is to overpromise what documents will do. In this case, I hear loads of advertising that make it sound like if you do a will, a judge won’t be involved.
That’s just not the case. A judge will be involved. Picking people to parent parentless kids is kind of one of the biggest legal deals out there. A judge will be taking a look at the situation. But they definitely want to know what you think. Tell them what you think. The only way to do that is to name a guardian for your kids in a legally effective will.
Okay. So what do you do when you have decision paralysis about who to name? Here are the four factors I talk about with clients that usually clears it up.
First, and this is clearly the most important and enlightening, what are your goals for your kids? What kind of adult do you want them to become? In our case, my husband and I really want to raise kids who become independent adults who are ready to face the world. With goals like that, it pretty quickly rules out an aunt who loves them to pieces and cannot tell them “no” and feeds them raw cookie dough for dinner. That aunt is an incredibly important person in their lives, just not the top candidate to raise them into adulthood. Seeing the preferred outcome makes a ton of overwhelming decisions easier and it’s the same with picking a guardian.
I want to stop here for a minute and make something clear. In naming a guardian, you are not giving a merit badge to the person who loves your kid the most. This is about who is best able to raise the child. It’s a decision about your kids, not your friends or relatives. Forget what people will think and focus on what’s best for your kids. That sounds obvious. But it’s a common hang-up.
Okay. The next factor is a combination of the ages of your kids and the stages of life your options are in. Naming someone when your kids are toddlers versus when they’re teenagers is a whole different calculation. A duty for a few years versus close to twenty years are different things. An option that would be great over two or three years might not likely work in fifteen. Also keep in mind stability. A great person with a great relationship with your kids might not be the best option if they’re moving to different cities every few years and not entirely settled.
Another factor that can bring clarity is location. In my state, Minnesota, this is a factor that can be important if a judge is in a position of choosing between family members, i.e. you didn’t tell them your opinion because you didn’t have a legally effective will.
In those cases, our judges look at a bunch of factors to figure out what will be in the best interests of the kids. Many of those factors revolve around location. How long have the children been in a particular place? How important is it for these kids to stay in the community? Is there an option that keeps them there? If not, is there an option in a place relatively similar, whether it’s rural, urban or suburban? How much adjustment will these kids, who are already adjusting to a lot, have to do? The thought process for a judge can be a good exercise for you to do when you’re stuck.
Finally, whether or not you should name a couple. This isn’t so much of a factor to unstick your decision paralysis. It’s more of something to keep in mind as you finalize your documents. I’m routinely given the name of a couple. But, when I do a little bit of follow-up, I find whether both people should be named is more of a toss up. You don’t need to name the couple. So, if your naming a sibling and your in-law wouldn’t be your choice if your sibling died and wasn’t there, don’t name them both. If both of them are close to your kids and the spouse would be your choice anyway, name both. Just think through what your specific opinion is and state it clearly.
Keep in mind your goals for your kids. Think about the ages of the kids and stages of life of the potential guardians. Consider the location of the guardian and how your kids will adjust to living there. Finally, give some thought to whether to name a couple or if you really should just name a single person, even if that person happens to be married. My four factors for picking a guardian.
Now. Let’s take a step back though for a second. You might not have aoption that perfectly fits the bill. That’s okay. It’s actually normal. We’re not looking for perfect. We’re looking for the best option in your circumstances. Don’t use these four factors for picking a guardian to rule people out, rather use them as a way to evaluate who out of your options is the best candidate.
Still stuck? Download a free pdf with the factors by signing up for the newsletter and talk the details through. Ask your estate planning attorney for their thoughts on your options. Stuck on even starting the process of estate planning? Is this on your constant to-do list that you never get to? Overwhelmed by where to start? That’s why I made Your Organized (after)Life Workshop. Click the workshop tab to get started.