Who will raise my kids if I cannot?

As huge and unthinkable as the question is, it’s no wonder that I hear excuses all the time from friends, family and clients who are parents of young children but 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 on who to designate as your minor children’s guardians in your stead.

As unpleasant as the task may be, the consequence of postponing it is worse. In the absence of carefully prepared estate-planning documents with proper designation directions, you’re effectively leaving it up to a Don't leave it up to a judge to decidejudge 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, 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 to mind as the most likely candidates. Go with your gut, as your first instincts may well be the right ones.

Next, narrow down your choices by considering key questions like the ones 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, to offer stability in place of the deep loss your children will have experienced? My mom loves to have the kids for a night or two. But what if it were to be for the rest of her life?

Are they mature enough? It is not easy to raise children, I know. There is so much stress around 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?

Do they have the time? Even if potential guardians have done well raising their own children, would additional charges be too much to ask of them? Have they expressed or exhibited that they already are at wit’s end with their own lifestyle?

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 need to be uprooted from 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, have different or no religious beliefs, express different views on parental discipline, and otherwise may not share a number of our own choices. While this may not preclude them from being good friends – variety is the spice of life – it may make a guardianship role less ideal.

Are they financially fit? You will do your best to leave a legacy for your children. But will it be enough to offset dropping them into someone else’s home, where an addition or even a move to a larger house may be required 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 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, it’s time 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; or, 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 the pros and cons and comparing notes, you are best positioned to determine which issues seem important but resolvable with good planning; which may be unresolvable but something you can accept if you must; and which ones seem like show-stoppers.  

For example:

  • On the financial front, you may realize you need more life insurance coverage to help your designated guardian take on the additional financial burden.
  • Your estate plan may need to be especially flexible to handle the 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 for the differing 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 Engines

Armed with your informed outlook, it’s time to choose! Make choices you both can agree on. They may not be perfect or even your personal first picks, but they’re likely to be a significant improvement over having made no choice at all. First, 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 an appointment must be made and your thoughts on the matter have never been documented. In addition, it is traumatic enough for a child to lose both parents. The stress of the 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 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 complete the necessary logistics. There can be a number of players involved:

  • Your insurance agent assists with adequate coverage.
  • Your estate planning attorney counsels you on your intentions and translates them into the necessary legal set-up.
  • Your investment professional assists with portfolio management.
  • Your wealth manager coordinates the team’s varied efforts, eliminating gaps and overlaps that may otherwise occur – during set-up, ongoing, and should it become necessary to implement 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 are growing up, even if we are not available 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.