When you’re expecting a baby, you don't want to imagine a world for them without you. But you'll be glad you considered who should take care of your child if you weren't around. A key way to account for this possibility? Come up with a guardianship plan in your last will and testament.
Your survivors likely won't need to be put your plan into place, but it’s essential to talk it out. Don't just assume that, say, your parents or in-laws would save the day.
“Planning to protect young children in the event that both parents pass away is a huge responsibility,” says Shannon McNulty, a lawyer in Manhattan. She owns City Family Legal Planning, a firm specializing in drawing up legal documents for families.
She says, “You want to make sure your child is protected under all circumstances.” Playing the what would happen if game can be grisly, true. But ask some hypothetical questions to ensure your child will be in the best possible hands if the worst were to occur.
This is also something you can discuss with the legal guardian you eventually appoint. Maybe it’s important to you that the guardian relocate to your state, at least temporarily.
You might also want to think about choosing a guardian who'll maintain impart the values you care about. You can gather the traditions, morals and lessons you hold dear by creating an ethical will.
A lot of loved ones would probably step up to the plate, if worst came to worst. But talking about the possibility can help you suss out who would thrive on the challenge.
For example, Jen, a mom of two from Montclair, NJ, spoke about guardianship with two of her siblings. She was surprised by how much her child-free brother was interested. “I assumed, were the worst to happen, my children would go to my sister. That's because she already has three kids of her own," Jen says.
Her sister agreed to take on the responsibility, but her brother was excited about it. "When I brought it up, my brother talked about why he was interested as well. He works remotely and always wanted kids, but the cards never lined up. He has the flexibility to adapt to the needs of my child. That, plus the fact my kids love their uncle, tipped the balance for me.”
Understand your children's financial future by reading and understanding any life insurance policies you have in place.
You'll also probably want to discuss how assets would be distributed to your children and their guardians. A lawyer can walk you through different options, including creating a trust or creating a guardianship.
Finally, it’s important to realize that a legal guardian doesn’t necessarily need to be the same person as a financial guardian. (Note that they often are the same, however.)
While a financial guardian doesn’t need a background in finance or law, you might ask, "Who would make the wisest financial decisions for my children?"
Inform all relevant parties about this choice before you write your last will and testament, to make sure they're on board.
“Our entire extended family is close, so we had a lot of options,” notes Kristy, a mom of three in Needham, MA. “Ultimately, we decided that my children’s legal guardians would be my sister and her husband. They have children close in age to my own kids. But my husband’s brother is a lawyer and I know he would have the most talent—and interest—in managing the financial side of things.”
It’s important to update your guardian appointment as situations change.
For example, let’s say you named your child’s grandparents back when your child was a newborn. But flash forward a decade, your parents may be less active and facing health problems. Meanwhile, other family members may have started families of their own that could be a better fit. It’s all about remaining flexible and adaptable.
While you name a guardian in your will, McNulty says it’s important to make sure you have a standby guardian designation. That's someone who could immediately take custody if your main guardian isn't immediately available. She says, “Having a standby guardian designation, like a trusted friend or family member, ensures that your child will never end up in state custody.”
Eleanor, a mom of two in Boulder, CO, named her sister as legal guardian, but her sister lives abroad. That would make it hard for her to assume immediate responsibility. Because of that, Eleanor designated her mother as a temporary guardian, making sure all parties were on the same page in that decision.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is to ensure your child has a safe, loving home.
Bottom line: It’s important to let your guardians-to-be know their designation. It's equally important to let those you didn't choose in on your decision.
While these conversations may not be pleasant, the peace of mind they provide is priceless.
Fabric exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.
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.
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