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Why You Should Name a Guardian for Your Kids Right Away

The Boss 60 October 27, 2020
Illustration for article titled Why You Should Name a Guardian for Your Kids Right Away
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For many young couples with kids and bills to pay, a common response to estate planning is “what estate?” Yet an important aspect of having a will—one that couples tend to overlook—is choosing a guardian. Failing to choose a guardian could mean chaos after your death, with the potential scenario of your child being placed into a foster home. Here’s what you need to consider.

Why naming a guardian for your child is important 

Having a will is already a good idea, as it allows you to set up trust accounts, name beneficiaries, provide legally binding instructions in case you become incapacitated, and make funeral arrangements (read this Lifehacker story for more on estate planning).

For a young family, naming a guardian is another overlooked reason you’d want to set up a will. In the event you and your spouse die together with no guardian specified in a will, the guardian will be chosen by the state. In a worst case scenario, in which you have no close family or none of your family is in a position to take your child, the court will have no choice but to send them to foster care until a permanent guardian can be found.

Of course, a judge will gather as much information as possible about your children and family circumstances and try to make a good decision. But the judge won’t be working with any intimate knowledge of who you know or which of your relatives would be good guardians, which means they could pick one of the last people you might pick to take care of your child.

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Why people avoid estate planning

Less than one third of Americans have a will, according to a Caring.com survey, and the number has been shrinking in recent years—yet 60% still think estate planning is important. Part of this contradiction can be explained by how unpleasant it can be to plan for your own death. It’s human nature to avoid things that make us uncomfortable, and creating a will forces you to make some hard decisions that could affect the future of your child.

Naming a guardian is an emotional decision that can be an early test in a young couple’s marriage. Parents often have strong, differing opinions about what’s best for the future of their child. As Jill Schlesinger explains on her Jill on Money podcast:

“One of the most horrendous, knock-down, drag-out fights I ever saw as a money manager was a fight between a couple that just melted down into ‘your brother is an idiot, your sister is this’ and it was fighting and slammed doors. These are very touchy issues. Emotions are infused in these problems. However if you die without instructing who the guardian will be, the state will make that decision for you.”

How to pick the right guardian

Couples should try to find common ground by agreeing to a set of criteria they’re looking for in a guardian. This could include:

  • Their willingness to be a guardian.
  • Their financial situation.
  • Where the child might live.
  • The potential guardian’s values, religion, or political beliefs.
  • Their skills as a parent.
  • Their age and health.

From there, your next steps are to make a decision, get the chosen guardian’s consent, write it all down, and then set out to create a will or trust. Your safest bet is to contact a professional estate planner, but you can use DIY online tools too, just make sure you understand their limitations first.