That is one of the hardest questions for people to answer. Looking at my current list of open cases, I have three or four clients that have not been able to finish the planning process because of this very issue. While the estate planning process usually only takes a few weeks to complete, I have two client couples that still can’t decide what to do even after two years of thinking about it! I hope the following insights will be helpful to any reader trying to decide who to nominate as guardian for your minor children:
No Choice is as Good As You, and Any Choice is Better Than No Choice At All!
Any time I have a client that can’t seem to make a decision about this issue, I try to help them realize two things:
First, you can’t find someone to take your place. You are the best parents for your children hands down. Our job in estate planning isn’t to recreate the perfect scenario because the perfect scenario would not involve parents dying before their children reach adulthood. Instead, our job is to find a workable solution under the circumstances while minimizing potential problems.
Second, it is better that you make a choice now (however imperfect that choice may be), rather than let the courts make that choice later. Here in Arizona, the courts do not want impose their will in these matters when they don’t have to. If a parent properly nominates a guardian in a valid will or a separate nomination of guardian, the court will almost always follow those instructions. However, if no such planning is done, the court has to step in to make the decision. This can be a messy process if family members can’t agree about what should happen with our children. Also, for those that would rather have friends be guardians to their children, its important to note that non-relatives usually get left out of the conversation when courts are deciding on guardianship issues.
Don’t Get Too Caught Up About the Money
Some parent-clients get hung up if their first choice for guardian isn’t good with money. They may feel comfortable with the love and parenting skills a particular friend or relative, but worry that the person’s salary or life station isn’t amenable to taking on more children. Also, for those that have this type of worry, this is one of the reasons the financial gods have invented life insurance! (More about this in this POST) And, if a well-drafted trust is the beneficiary of your life insurance policy, your children (and their guardians) will have the money they need, but not unfettered access, until your children are mature enough to manage on their own.
No Matter Who You Choose, Your Children and Your Family Will Experience Change After You Die
Like the first point, it might be helpful to remember that no one you choose will be able to manage life and relationships the way you would. For example, there is a good chance that your guardian will move your children to a new house, in a new neighborhood, and send them to a new school. Also, even the most conscientious of guardians will not be able to make sure your child sees both sets of grandparents as often (or as little) as you would like them to. You can’t anticipate employment changes, divorce, illnesses, etc. of others after you die. But then again, we can’t really anticipate those things in our own lives now while we are still living!
In other words, just do the best you can. Think about the potential scenarios that would be in the best interests of your children, and then in the end – make a choice! Of course, I always recommend that you talk some of these issues through with a qualified attorney.
For more on this topic, see this post: Estate Planning Basics for New Parents