Naming a Guardian for Your Minor Child(ren)

If you have a minor child, you need to name someone to raise your child (a guardian) in the event that both parents should die before your child becomes an adult.  While the likelihood of that actually happening is slim, the consequences of not naming a guardian are great.
If you don’t name a guardian, a judge (a stranger who does not know you, your child, or your relatives) will decide who will raise your child without knowing whom you would have preferred.  You can’t assume the judge will automatically appoint your mother or sister to raise your children; anyone can ask to be considered and the judge will select the person he/she deems most appropriate.
If you have named a guardian in your will, the judge will still need to appoint the guardian, but will usually go along with your choice.  If you are divorced, the judge will usually name the other parent, but will appreciate knowing if you have any concerns about his or her parenting capabilities.
Choosing a Guardian
The person you name as guardian does not have to be a relative, so consider all of your options. You may, in fact, be very close with another family with whom your child is already comfortable, and you may agree to be guardian for each other’s kids if something happens to either of you.
As you begin to list and evaluate your candidates, consider the following:

  • Parenting style, values, and religious beliefs should be similar to your own.  If your candidates have children, observe how they are raising and disciplining them.  If they don’t have children, find out all you can about how they were raised; people tend to parent how they were parented.
  • How far away from you do they live?  Would your child have to move far away from a familiar school, friends, and neighborhood at an emotionally difficult time?
  • How comfortable with them is your child now?
  • How prepared emotionally are your candidates to take on this added responsibility?  Someone who is single may resent having to care for someone else’s children.  Someone with a houseful of their own kids may not want more around or they may welcome the addition.
  • Do they have the time and energy?  Your parents may have the time, but consider if they would have the energy to keep up with a toddler or teenager.  Someone who works long hours may not seem the ideal candidate at first, but they may be willing to change their priorities if needed.
  • If your candidates have children of their own, would your child fit in or feel lost?
  • Consider the age of your child and of your candidates.  An older guardian may become ill or even die before your child is grown.  A younger guardian, especially an adult sibling, may be concentrating on finishing college or starting a career.  If your child is older and more mature, he or she should have some input into your decision.
  • Is your selection willing to serve?  Ask.  Don’t assume they will take the job if it comes to them.
The Financial Side
Raising your child should not be a financial burden for the person you select as guardian and a candidate’s lack of finances should not be the deciding factor in your decision.  You will need to provide enough money (from your own assets, from life insurance, or both) to provide for your child the way you want.  You may even want to help the guardian buy a larger car or add onto their existing home, if needed.
Consider naming someone else to handle the finances.  Naming one person to raise the children and handle the money can make things simpler, because the guardian would not have to ask someone else for money.  The best person to raise your child may not be the best person to handle the money and it may be tempting for them to use this money for their own purposes.
Many parents set up a trust for the child’s inheritance (so the child will not inherit everything at age 18) and name someone other than the guardian to be the trustee of the trust.  There can be disagreements over expenses (for example, whether the child should go to public or private school), so be sure to name two people who can work together for the best interests of your child.
Provide a Letter of Instruction
Consider writing a letter to the guardian explaining your expectations and hopes for your child’s upbringing.  Include your desires about your child’s education, activities, and religious training.  Read and update your letter every year as your child grows and interests develop.  You may also want to discuss these with your selected guardian.
Having a Hard Time Making a Decision?
If you are having trouble making a decision, list the pros and cons for each candidate.  If you and your child’s other parent are having trouble coming to a mutual agreement, try making your own separate lists of top candidates and look for some common ground. Be sure to name at least one alternate in case your first choice becomes unable to serve.
Keep in mind that the person you select as guardian will probably not raise your child.  The odds are that at least one parent will survive until your child is grown.  You are simply being a good parent here and planning ahead for an unlikely, but possible, situation.  Next, realize that no one but you will be the perfect parent for your child, so you are probably going to have to make some compromises in some areas.  Also, you can change your mind.  In fact, you should review and change the guardian as your child grows and if the guardian’s situation changes.
Don’t wait too long.  Remember, if you do not name someone to raise your child and the unlikely does happen, a total stranger will decide who will raise your child without your input.