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Wills & Estate Planning

What’s the Difference Between a Godparent and a Legal Guardian?

By Sarah Li Cain Aug 11, 2020

In this article

How is a Godparent Different From a Legal Guardian?

Can a Godparent Be a Legal Guardian?

How to Appoint a Legal Guardian

Letting Everyone Know

Like the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Aside from teachers, grandparents and a local babysitter, many families also choose a godparent.

This is someone outside your immediate family who helps you guide your child spiritually throughout their life. Usually it’s someone who follows the same faith as you. This role often means being there for their baptism and beyond. 

This could mean attending birthday, graduation or other types of special events, and being there if the child needs advice or someone to advocate on their behalf. 

Many folks choose very trusted and beloved friends as godparents, and might assume that those are the people who’d step up to care for their children if something happened to them. 

But—surprise, surprise—the concept of a godparent isn’t legally binding, so as you’re thinking about your estate planning and who should raise your children if you’re not around, it’s important to understand the distinction. 

How is a Godparent Different From a Legal Guardian?

Simply put, the major difference between a godparent and legal guardian is the legality of the relationship. Being a godparent means you’re an active participant in the child’s life, but it’s generally more of a religious role. A legal guardian, on the other hand, has one very specific role: Take care of the children if both parents were to pass away.

Mark F. Moss, Esq, an estate planning attorney licensed in Florida (and therefore can only speak to Florida law), says, “Just because someone is a godparent, the child will not be released to them because there is no legal relationship.”

Can a Godparent Be a Legal Guardian?

The short answer is yes, but only if you appoint them as one. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to choosing your child’s godparent as a legal guardian, so weigh your decision carefully. 

Having your child’s godparent appointed as their legal guardian means this person is in your child’s life from birth. In the event something does happen to you, it may not be as traumatic of a transition to live with the godparent because your child is already familiar with this person.

However, just because someone can be a good godparent doesn’t mean they’re well-equipped to be your child’s legal guardian.

For example, a godparent might be warm and affectionate toward your child but disorganized in their personal and financial life. That means that they may be the perfect person for your kid to speak to when there’s a squabble at school, but not the best person for coordinating all the logistics of your child’s financial and educational needs.

“It is possible, and often a good idea, to appoint two different guardians. One is a guardian of the person and one is a guardian of the property,” he says. That way one person steps into more of a parental role, and a different person manages the finances on behalf of the child. Moss says, “That way you can appoint the best people for each role to ensure the best care for your children.” 

Of course, if you have a relatively small estate, you might want to make sure that you aren’t creating an additional hurdle for the person watching your child, if they need to go through a third party every time they need money for basic expenses.

Again, it’s a lot to consider, and appointing more than one guardian can feel complicated. If your family situation is complex or there are other factors such as your nominated guardians living outside the state, you might want to consult with an estate planning attorney to make sure your paperwork is in order. Here’s more on how to decide on a legal guardian.

How to Appoint a Legal Guardian

Generally, you can appoint a guardian in your last will and testament. In Florida, where Moss is licensed, another document called a Designation of Preneed Guardianship, or DPG, complies with laws in his state as well.

“I recommend putting guardians in both those documents. A DPG is a ‘safety net’ of sorts, especially for minor children,” Moss says. “This allows for a guardian to serve immediately upon the incapacity or death of the surviving parent instead of the minor becoming a ward of the state until completion of a guardianship proceeding.”

If your attorney recommends a DPG or your state requires one, you’ll need to file the document with the clerk.

While wills typically do go through the probate process—meaning that a judge in court would need to rule that the document is valid before its instructions are carried out—guardianship wishes tend to be honored unless there is a specific reason why the appointed guardian is deemed unfit. For questions about your own situation, we recommend speaking with an attorney. 

Letting Everyone Know

Once you’ve decided on who to appoint as a legal guardian, you’ll want to make them aware of their role. (If you create a will through Fabric, you can share key information with the people you’ve chosen, so your guardians can have their own logins to view their role in your will.)

Moss suggests discussing these obligations, including talking with the other guardian if you’ve appointed one to care for your child and one to oversee the finances. Make your wishes clear and ensure that the guardian has the contact details for all relevant parties. We even wrote a guide to having the “guardian conversation.”

As a parent, you know what is best for your child. 

Whether or not you choose a godparent for your kids (and whether or not you name your godparent as your children’s legal guardian), the most important thing is to prepare for the future—now. 

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

This article is meant to provide general information and not to provide any specific legal advice or to serve as the basis for any decisions.

Fabric isn’t a law firm and we aren’t licensed to practice law or to 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.


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Written by

Sarah Li Cain

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