It’s a plotline in movies from Manchester-by-the-Sea to Raising Helen. An unprepared adult, reeling after the death of a sibling, finds themselves in a lawyers’ office, realizing they have guardianship. So what, exactly is guardianship, and how should you prepare for it?
What is Guardianship?
Guardianship basically entails deciding what would happen to any dependents under your care if you were to pass away. If you don’t leave a guardianship plan, the state will determine what happens to your children. This is the primary reason why you should begin planning your estate as soon as you have children. While sometimes guardianship plans are established through things like court-ordered custody in cases of divorce or separated parents, often it is up to the parents to determine who will care for their children.
Many cases of guardianship revolve around minor children, but guardians may also be appointed for adults with disabilities or who need extra help.
How Do I Pick a Guardian?
This is among the most difficult choices you can make as a parent. It requires thinking of unpleasant eventualities, having tough conversations with your partner about whose values match yours as a parent, and can include thinking about aging parents. Let’s break down some considerations:
- Shared Values: because of wanting shared value, many people turn to family first. Good choices may include siblings raised in the same home, or parents who passed along those values.
- Physical Ability: in many cases, your own parents may be an obvious choice. Since they raised you, you may share values and ideas about child-rearing. However, depending on their physical conditions, your parents may not be willing or able to run around after a toddler, or keep a close eye on a teen. Changing physical conditions mean that you may want to revisit this guardianship agreement as time goes on.
- Financial Ability: in an ideal world, you’ve already ensured that your children are well provided for until they are 18, but in reality, that’s not always possible. You should do everything in your power to ensure that your children are taken care of. This includes generous life insurance policies, instructions for setting up trusts in their names, etc. Even so, life and emergencies happen, and you should ensure that whoever you choose is financially comfortable enough to care for your child.
- Willingness: Any process to choose a guardian should include a conversation with the person or family that you have chosen. Are they willing and able to take care of your child? What questions or concerns do they have for you? Which do you have for them?
Setting Up the Guardianship
While going to a lawyer can be helpful, you can also find forms to assign guardianship online.
Your will can also be helpful in establishing guardianship, as well as providing the guardian with financial support.
Here are some other things to consider when planning for guardianship.
- Distance: if your chosen long-term guardian lives far from you, or won’t be able to immediately take custody of your children, you should consider setting up an emergency contact who can take care of your kids. Leave this persons’ name with the babysitter, and be sure to leave instructions to any first responders that you have entrusted your children to this person temporarily.
- Revising: You may find it helpful to periodically revisit your guardianship agreement. Perhaps your once childless friends now have three children of their own, and would find more difficult to care for. Perhaps your parents are no longer able to care for children. Changes in life circumstance can, and should, mean revision to your guardianship agreements.
- Storage: Your guardianship plan should be easily accessible in cases of an emergency. You and your guardians should both have copies. You should also upload it to Jazmine, so you and others can access it easily.