Picking a Guardian for Your Children

From new Choice Mom-friendly estate planner Chris Tymchuck, of Unique Family Law:

When we saw a man on the side of the road asking for money, my 3-year-old daughter asked, “what is he doing with that sign?” I braced myself for a difficult conversation.

Once I was mentally prepared for an anticipated barrage of follow-up questions, I began, “he is asking for money to help him get some food.” To which my daughter pointed out the window and replied, “look a school bus!”

So much for preparing to handle an uncomfortable conversation.

I am an estate-planning attorney, which means that I have a lot of uncomfortable conversations with people (clients or not). We are forced to discuss things like death and incapacity, frankly and openly. I talk to people about their worst nightmares in a dispassionate and neutral voice.

I generally take time to prepare for these conversations, anticipating the worst and most difficult responses I might receive. But often I find that even people who have asked to meet with me on these issues respond by saying, “look a school bus.”

As a single parent you generally have to put more thought into choosing your trusted agents or advisers. For married couples the first choice usually defaults to their spouses. There is no such default for unmarried parents when it comes to picking a guardian for your children.

You must choose someone to handle your financial and medical needs in the event that you are unable to speak for yourself. More importantly, you must ensure that you decide who will care for you children if you can’t. [Mikki’s note: see “legal” category for other posts on this topic of picking a guardian.]

Once you have identified the candidates to fill these positions, it is time to sit down and talk about your choices. The thought of discussing such delicate topics as what will happen to your child in the event of your death or incapacity might fill you with fear. But they are crucial conversations to have.

Here is a list of those with whom you should discuss your plans, and a list of possible talking points.

Potential guardians

  • Your reasoning: Why are you choosing that person? Be clear about all the reasons you value them in your life. More importantly, explain to them why you want them to be a part of your child’s life even if you aren’t around.
  • Education: Explain your hopes for your child’s education. This would be a good time to discuss any financial arrangements you have made for your kid’s educational future (509, savings or life insurance).
  • Religion: Your potential guardian may not be aware of your wishes for your child’s religious upbringing.
  • Ethical values: Explain any other values you wish to impart. My family is vegetarian, and while I recognize not everyone has the same view on this issue as I do, it would mean a lot to me if the guardian of my daughter at least kept her aware of this issue in the future.
  • Other family members: What are your hopes for your child’s continued interaction with extended family members? This is a good time to communicate those desires to your potential guardians. Explain that you would like your parents to continue their annual vacation with your child or monthly dinners.
  • Extended family: Why you made your choices. This allows you to do everything you can to cut down on future conflicts. If something happens and you have left your child to your best friend, family members may wonder why and put up a fight. But, if you explain to your family why you made your choices (location, age, values) then they will not be surprised when it happens and may even understand why you made these choices.
  • Plans for future visits: in tandem with the above point, explain that you have made it clear to the guardian that you want them to continue with regular visits with your child.
  • What you discussed with your agents: clarify the list of discussion topics from the above list so that your family also knows and understand your wishes for your child’s future.
  • Other considerations: Discuss your decisions with your child(ren). If you have children that are older, you might want to explain to them who you have chosen to help them through life if anything happens to you. In most cases you will have picked someone they know well and they will understand that choice. Again, it will cut down on any confusion later. If something happens to you, your children will already know where they are going and why.
  • Letters of explanation: Write a letter to each person whom you believe will be impacted by your choices. This list might include your financial and medical agents, guardian(s), family members, child and/or friends. These can be given out by your attorney at the time specified by you and will allow people to understand your choices at a time when it is crucial that they “get it.”

Picking the right time for the conversation
Presumably, you are very familiar with the person you’ve identified to be your child’s guardian. That makes you uniquely qualified to pick the proper time and format for talking to them about your decision. The person you choose will want to follow your wishes as much as possible, so please take the time to communicate them now.

One way to discuss these issues with your family, friends and chosen advisers is to break them down into small discussions. Instead of making time for a three-hour conversation about the decisions you’ve made, perhaps you could start with a talk about why your chosen guardian is important to you and what led you to choose that person for such a crucial role. Then you can have a follow-up conversation to talk about your hopes and wishes for your child, which led you to choosing a guardian.

While these subjects are crucial and you want to be able to convey every hope and dream you have for your child in one big meeting, keep in mind that it the subject matter is heavy and uncomfortable. If the person you’re talking to looks off and says, “look, a school bus,” it might be a good time to schedule another meeting to pick up where this one left off.

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  1 comment for “Picking a Guardian for Your Children

  1. REC
    April 2, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Single mother by choice of two children by friend who was donar. He recently wanted to children to know he was their father, they are now 5 and 8. After meeting with a therapist we told them and he is developing a relationship with them. We discussed changing the birth certificate to adding his name but I worry because at this point my will states that my children would be raised by one of my brothers. I feel torn to not add their father on their birth certificate because now they know him and it would be nice for them to see it on record when they get older. I fear, if he wanted, he could want to raise the children and that my brother would have to fight it in court. Any advice appreciated. Researching CA laws now.

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