Dear Carrie: My husband and I can’t come to an agreement on whom to appoint as a guardian for our three young children. He says his brother, I say my sister. How can we reach an agreement? — A Reader
Dear Reader: Although my kids are now grown up, your question takes me right back to when my husband Gary and I were trying to make this same decision. Like you, we were fortunate enough to have a few choices, but choosing among them seemed impossible. And let’s be honest, there are always pros and cons to every possible choice, because no one, no matter how special, can really take your place.
Because it’s such an emotional decision — and because it’s so important (if you don’t name a guardian, the state will choose one for you) — I think the best way to go about it is to make a list of all the important considerations. Then you and your husband can examine each one from a practical perspective as well as an emotional one and, hopefully, come to an agreement. That’s what our estate-planning attorney helped us to do and I’m happy to pass his insights on to you.
Ask Yourself These Questions
Answering the following questions will help you zero in on what’s most important as you consider the possibility of someone else raising your children.
–Does the prospective guardian share your values? Whether it’s religious, moral, political or personal, ideally you want someone to raise your children with the beliefs and attitudes that you hold dear. Of course, no two people think exactly alike, but if, for instance, you want your kids to grow up in a socially liberal environment, you’d want a guardian to have an open mind on social issues.
–How intimately does this person know you and your family? How comfortable are your kids with this person? The closer your kids are to a potential guardian, the easier it will be on them during what is a very difficult transition.
–How many children does the prospective guardian already have? What is their parenting style? If someone already has a full house, there may not be room for your kids. And in terms of parenting, you want someone who could provide a sense of continuity when it comes to things like discipline and personal responsibility.
–What’s the age and health of the individual you’re considering? Since you mention your siblings, age may not be a factor, but it’s good to think about these things. Depending on the age of your children at the time, this could be a long-term commitment.
–Where does the guardian live? Do you want your children to be uprooted? It’s one thing to move a toddler across country but quite another to tear a teenager away from junior high or high school where friends and social networks have already been established.
Focusing on these issues may point more toward one or another potential guardian. But once you’ve answered these questions to your mutual satisfaction, there’s still another important consideration.
Think About Financial Stability
Hopefully you and your husband have enough life insurance to provide for your kids financially through college. It’s one thing to ask someone to care for your kids and quite another to ask them to support them.
But whatever your financial circumstances, whether it’s through personal assets or insurance, your children will most likely have some type of inheritance that needs to be managed carefully. Fortunately, you can choose to appoint both a personal guardian and what’s called a guardian of the estate. They don’t have to be the same individual.
So let’s say your sister is the most financially savvy and your husband’s brother has the best family set up to care for the children. You could involve each according to their circumstances. However, it’s very important that the guardian of the person and the guardian of the estate get along and agree on what’s best for the kids.
Get the Guardian’s Consent
Once you and your husband agree, the next step is to talk to the prospective guardian. Make sure he or she understands why you’ve chosen them and is willing to take on the responsibility. Actually, I think it’s a good idea to have a second choice in case the first one is unable at the time to fulfill the role.
Realize That You Can Revisit Your Choice Every Few Years
Nothing is cast in stone, not even your will. If something changes over the years, don’t hesitate to change your guardian choice. No one’s feelings should be hurt. The deciding factor should always be what’s best for your children at the time.
Believe me, I know this whole process isn’t easy, and hopefully your guardian will never have to step in. But make the choice now, and put it in writing. Then as you and your family go about living a full and happy life, you can rest a bit easier knowing your kids are taken care of — just in case.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER ™ is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of “It Pays to Talk.” You can e-mail Carrie at email@example.com.