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Picking a Guardian for Your Children

If you have minor children, you’ve probably had a “plane crash” nightmare: You and your spouse are on an airliner, when it suddenly plunges from the sky, leaving your kids at home with Grandma and Grandpa — for the rest of their lives.

Two Pieces of Advice

  • Check with your estate planning attorney. Details for appointing a guardian vary from state to state.
  • Talk with your children about guardianship if they are old enough. Who would they like to live with? You may be surprised at the feedback.

Although it’s just a dream, the scenario should alert you to an important part of estate planning: Who do you want raising your children into adulthood if the unthinkable happens?

Many factors go into choosing a guardian for your children or a substitute if your first choice is unable to serve. Among the characteristics to consider:

  • Similar values and lifestyle.
  • Flexibility.
  • Good sense of responsibility.
  • Good health.
  • Fiscally fit and good at handling finances.
  • Likes children and has a nurturing personality.

Of course, any wish list must adapt to reality, but keep these characteristics in mind in your search for the right person.

There are actually two aspects to guardianship:

1. Serving as guardian of the child (taking care of the personal needs).

2. Serving as a guardian of the estate or the person who handles the finances (sometimes called a conservator).

In some cases, the same person can handle both. In other instances, the responsibilities are split with, say, an aunt as the personal guardian and an attorney as the conservator.

When considering a guardian, talk with potential candidates to see if they are willing and able to take on the responsibility and whether they are a good fit. Family members are often the first choice and they may be reluctant to refuse the job. Take your time and if you sense hesitation or have other doubts, move on to a more appropriate choice. Remember, your children could be living with the guardian until they are 18, or even longer if they remain full-time students.

Long-term guardians are named in your will, so make sure to keep it current. Note, though, naming a guardian is not binding on the courts but shows your intent.

Sometimes a situation can arise — particularly if you’re a single parent — in which you’ll be unable to care for your child for a short time due to a severe illness, incarceration, or other unfortunate circumstances.

It may be possible to name a temporary guardian. Note the circumstances under which the guardian will take control, how long the guardianship will last, and what the guardian is authorized to do.

The inclination to avoid the guardianship issue can be strong. But don’t delay. Long or short term, it’s too important a responsibility to leave to chance.

If you can’t care for your children, for whatever reason, and haven’t appointed anyone to fill in for you, the choice falls to the state. Few parents want an anonymous state childcare worker or the judge to assign someone to be responsible for what happens to their kids.