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How to Navigate the ‘Guardianship Conversation’

Lynn Shattuck

Imagining your child growing up without you is one of the least fun tasks of parenthood. But you know what’s worse? A judge swooping in to decide who should raise your child.

What Is a Guardian?

A legal guardian is the person you wish to raise your child if something happens to you. You can name this person (and a backup) in your last will and testament.

Deciding exactly who to choose can be difficult, since your decision could have big ramifications for your children. (Interestingly, according to our original research, 62 percent of parents with young kids designated a woman as their children's guardians.)

After you decide, then comes the fun part (“fun” may or may not be sarcastic). It's time to ask the person you’ve chosen. And, in some cases, you might need to tell the people you didn’t choose.

Popping the Question

There’s really no wrong way to ask someone to serve as a guardian. Most people will be flattered. What bigger compliment could you give someone than entrusting him or her with your child’s future?

Here are some steps for having a seamless conversation:

  1. Make sure the person you designate as legal guardian is up for the job. “If you’re worried about putting a big guilt trip on them, you can start the conversation by giving them total permission to say no,” says Brad Klontz, associate professor of Practice Heider College of Business at Creighton University.

  2. Lay out any special wishes. For instance, some parents find peace of mind if they know their children will stay in the family home after they die, according to Parke Burmeister, attorney and founder of Casco Bay Law, LLC. If that's important to you, make sure the guardian would be willing to accommodate.

  3. Talk about the values and traditions you hope to impart on your children. One way to categorize your guiding principles is to make an ethical will.

  4. Talk about money. How will your potential guardian support your child? Do you have an emergency fund? What about saving for college? Let the potential guardian know what you’ve put in place. Knowing you have adequate term life insurance, for instance, can help ease the guardian’s worries about the strain of being suddenly charged with raising a child.

When you ask someone to be your child’s legal guardian, he will often say yes right away. But if this person has a spouse or partner, Klontz recommends making sure he talks it over with that person before you finalize anything.

Should the Legal Guardian Be in Charge of the Money, Too?

You’ll need to decide if you want the legal guardian to also be in charge of handling your assets after you die.

That depends on how much money we’re talking about, says Syble Solomon, financial educator, president of LifeWise Strategies and founder of Money Habitudes. “When you have very little money involved and the guardian will actually be providing for the child, having that monitored by someone else doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Those with larger estates, though, may benefit from appointing a separate trustee. Many estate attorneys recommend setting up a trust to protect assets like life insurance in the event of your death.

Burmeister says you might sometimes want a separate trustee to manage these assets: “Let the guardian focus on raising the kids, and let the trustee focus on taking care of the money.”

If you take this route, you may feel uncomfortable telling the guardian that you trust her to raise your kids, but that you’ve chosen someone else to manage the money. Likewise, it can be awkward to tell someone you trust her with your money, but not your kids.

Klontz has a simple suggestion: “The details don’t really matter as much as the framing does. Say, ‘We have these two roles to fill, and it was a really tough decision. We really want you in our children’s lives, so we chose this role for you.’”

You can take the same approach when appointing an alternate guardian. Initiate the conversation by explaining what an emotional process this has been. Let the backup guardian know how much you want him involved in your child’s life, too.

When You Want Non-Family to Be Your Legal Guardian

While many people prefer for family to raise their kids, it’s not always possible, or even preferable. If you’ve decided to have a friend serve as your child’s legal guardian, you might dread breaking the news to your family.

“Admit that this is a difficult conversation for you,” says Solomon. “Then, share what you’ve put in place so your family will participate in your children’s lives.”

When letting parents or older relatives know, Klontz recommends phrasing like: “We know you’d provide an incredible home for our children, but we didn’t want to burden you.”

As Burmeister points out, if you have a toddler now and your 50- or 60-something parents are healthy, they might not be up for the challenge of raising a teenager when they're in their mid-60s or -70s.

You also don’t need to announce your decision to your family, either. This is especially true if you chose a non-relative because you have a difficult relationship with your family. “You have no moral obligation to tell everyone,” says Klontz. However, he does recommend informing at least one person from each spouse’s family. By doing so, you can help avoid hurt feelings and confusion in the unlikely event that the worst happens.

Keeping It Fresh

After you complete this intense process, it may be tempting to hope your last will and testament collects dust in a filing cabinet. But don’t forget to revisit your decision every few years as life circumstances change.

Solomon says, “You may choose one guardian for a young child. You might choose another for a teenager who wants to remain local to finish high school.”

Once you’ve completed this unsavory task, you can add it to the list of things your kids will probably never thank you for. But rest assured they'll be immensely better off because you got it done.

Fabric exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.

Ready to name a legal guardian for your child? Create your last will and testament for free, online, with Fabric.

This material is designed to provide general information on the subjects covered. It is not, however, intended to provide any specific legal advice or to serve as the basis for any decisions.

We are not a law firm, are not licensed to practice law in any jurisdiction and do not provide any legal advice. If you do need legal advice for your specific situation, you should consult with a licensed attorney and/or tax professional.

Fabric Insurance Agency, LLC offers a mobile experience for people on-the-go who want an easy and fast way to purchase life insurance.

Lynn Shattuck

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