As a new-widowed person and single-parent with minor children, one of the first things you need to think about is guardianship – selecting someone to take care of your children should something happen to you. No one likes estate planning, especially soon after the loss of a spouse, but it could mean the difference between chaos and stability for your bereaved children. You must consider what you would want to happen to them should something unexpectedly happen to you. You can’t schedule an unexpected death, so the sooner you have this taken care of the better.
What Is a Guardian?
In most cases, a surviving parent assumes the role of sole guardian of your minor children. However, what if something happens to you? If you haven’t selected a guardian to replace you, the state will, and that’s probably not your preference. The guardian you choose should be over 18 and willing to assume the responsibility. Talk to the potential guardian about what you are asking before naming that person in your will. You can name a couple as co-guardians, but that may not be advisable. It is always possible the guardians may choose to separate at some later date; if so, a custody battle could ensue. If you do not name a guardian to care for your children, a judge will appoint one. Guardians are listed in your will, so the first thing to do is create a will if you don’t have one or update it with this information if you do.
What Is a Will?
A will is a legal document that allows you to transfer your property at your death. A will is a simple way to ensure that your money, property, and personal belongings will be distributed as you wish after your death. A will also allows you to have full use of your property while you are alive. You would work with an estate planning attorney to both create a will or update the one you have already. You will select a personal representative, also called an Executor, to manage and wind down your estate, resolving any debts and distributing your assets and property as you have directed in your will.
What do Guardians do?
A guardian will generally make similar decisions to what a parent could make for a child. This may include medical decisions and, for minors, other life decisions such as where to go to school. Guardians may also cover managing the child’s finances. A guardian is usually charged with providing for all of the child’s necessities. These necessities include providing food, shelter, clothing, and any other items that may be needed. Of course, most people consider a loving home and ample opportunities to succeed as necessities as well. In many cases, the guardian that is named by the parents (or appointed by the court) will personally take on the task of raising and caring for the child(ren). It is no menial task or responsibility; it is critical that you choose wisely.
Tips to Choose a Guardian
Selecting a guardian(s) for your child(ren) may be one of the most difficult tasks following the loss of your spouse. There is so much to consider given a guardian’s long-term responsibility to your children should you die while they are minor children. The following list includes a few important considerations when choosing a guardian (your attorney will have others).
What are the Steps for Naming a Guardian?
Now that you have considered the above factors and have a short list of potential guardians, you need to have several conversations with them. Some parents wish to keep their choice for a guardian a secret in order to avoid drama, which is a big mistake. Potential guardians need to be prepared for such a responsibility and they need to understand your expectations and what it will take to raise your children. Nobody wants, or deserves, this kind of surprise following your death.
You should understand that you can always change your mind. Life changes and people change. All parts of your will, including guardianship, can be updated whenever you choose. You don’t need court approval; you simply ask your attorney to make the changes and the cost is minimal.
It’s smart to revisit your choice of guardian every five or 10 years when you have a young child (annually if your child has special needs), but there are times when it’s especially important to consider updating your will, including divorce and remarriage, evidence of alcohol, drug or physical abuse, or criminal activity.
Lastly, put your wishes in writing. Start a “how to raise my child(ren) handbook” to help your guardians raise your children when you can’t. The more information you can provide, the less guessing there will be and your children will be raised as you would hope.
If you are now a single-parent with minor children, thinking about guardianship for your young children is important. Contact an estate planning attorney today to create a will, update your present will, and begin to take the necessary steps to select and add guardians to your will.