I spend a lot of time talking to clients about property, but at its core estate planning is about family. Clients want to ensure that their family will be taken care of.  For parents of young children, the most important family decision is the selection of a guardian.

A guardian is someone appointed by a parent, who will take care of their children if they can no longer do so. If the parent does not have a will, the court will appoint a guardian. When the court makes the appointment, there is a hearing to review the situation, the judge determines what would be in the children’s best interest, and then selects the guardian.

The problem with a court-appointed guardian is that the parent – not the court – is in the best position to determine their children’s best interest. Picture two or three of your relatives believing that they are the best person to help after your death.  Each petitions the court to be appointed guardian.  While they all may have the best intentions, they are not the best person to make the decision.  Neither is the court.  As unlikely as it may be that something will happen to you prematurely, selecting a guardian can help to prevent this.

So what factors should you consider when selecting a guardian? My opinion is that the most important thing to consider is your own values.  A guardian is a substitute parent, and should be someone who would parent as nearly as possible to the way you do.  That means different things to different people.  For example, do they lead an active lifestyle, eat family dinners, attend church, or praise and punish behavior in the same way you do?  Each family will look at these things differently.

In addition to the person’s values, there are other factors that are important to consider.

  • What is the person’s age? Many people consider their parents as an alternative, but depending on their age, they may not be able to provide care until your children are 18.
  • Where do they live? For school-age children, this can be especially important. If your ideal guardian lives across the country, are they still the best choice? This is also important if you live near other friends or relatives who play an important role in your children’s lives.
  • Is the person’s lifestyle suitable? This can mean a lot of things. For example, if you appoint someone who has three children of their own, will they be able to handle your children as well? Is their house large enough to accommodate that change, or could something be done to help with that? Also, would the person have the time for, and be ready for, the responsibility?

If for no other reason, appointing a guardian is a great reason to consider an estate plan.