Updated on 09.22.14

Choosing Guardians for Your Children

Trent Hamm

Yesterday morning, I posted an article discussing our decision-making process with regards to deciding whether or not to become named guardians for several children. Is it something we could handle?

After posting that article, several parents emailed me to state that they had been struggling with the guardianship question in their own lives. They were unsure who to select as a guardian for their own children. So, I thought I would revisit this question.

This was an issue my wife and I struggled with a great deal in the past, and I wrote an article about it in 2009. For us, the decision to choose a guardian came down to these questions:

Does the potential guardian share your values?

Do you believe the guardian will raise your child in accordance with those values? Is that potential guardian a good person?

Does that potential guardian have a strong family network around them to help with the burden of having unexpected (and likely traumatized) children?

Will that potential guardian teach your children the basics of success in life?

Does that guardian have the financial security to ensure that your child’s needs are met?

Will that guardian have an expected natural lifespan that will allow them to remain as guardian until your child enters adulthood?

During that time, we were considering five different options for our guardianship issue.

Option A is a couple without children at home in their mid fifties. They strongly share our values and are closely tied to our extended family.
Option B is a couple in their forties with three children at home, all older than our children. They share our values pretty well and have some ties to our extended family, but they live far away from both sets of grandparents.
Option C is also a couple in their forties with three children at home, all older than our children. They weakly share our values, but have very close ties to our extended family.
Option D is a couple close to our age that’s unable to have children. They very strongly share our values and probably fill me with the most confidence to raise our children well, but there is virtually no tie at all to our extended family.
Option E is a single female younger than us with values that perfectly match what we want and close ties to family. However, her income level is extremely low and her future and life path would be greatly altered by the burden of children. Likely, Option E will grow in likelihood as time goes by and she figures out where her life is going.

Since then, “Option D” has vanished from the table due to marital issues, and “Option E” is now part of a committed relationship that’s going to culminate in marriage sometime in the fairly near future.

Currently, we have “Option A” listed as guardians, with a strong likelihood of switching to “Option E” in the next year or two, particularly if their plan of moving back to the Midwest takes hold.

So, how did we reach that decision?

Our Thought Process on Guardianship

1. Values trumped everything else

It’s not about lip service, either. The actions that a person takes tells you loud and clear what the priorities and values in their life are. In this regard, I would put “Option E” easily on top of the pile, followed by A and B. In fact, “E” is so far ahead in this regard that “E” wins the day, even though “E” isn’t winning in other respects.

2. Financial security was much less of a priority due to our own life insurance situation

Again, we weren’t as concerned about income level as we were about the values expressed by the person. Were they frugal? Did they spend money seemingly beyond their means? Were they happy with wearing clothes until they were actually worn out? Do they routinely get themselves into precarious financial positions? Are they willing to go out there and get a job – any job – if they need income? Did they have at least a bit of an entrepreneurial bent, especially one that didn’t damage their financial situation? I’m more concerned about these things than about their current bank statement.

3. The capacity of parenting was a major concern

Are the people (reasonably) young and in reasonably good health? This, of course, isn’t a guarantee of future good health, but it’s a start. More importantly, have they shown the ability to care for others? Option E doesn’t have children, but has done other things in life that shows me that “E” is capable of such a task.

4. Do they want to do this?

I don’t expect a person to immediately say “yes” if I ask them to be a guardian for my children, but I do expect that they take the choice seriously and give me a real answer at some point. I’m more trusting of a delayed “yes” than an immediate one, in other words, because that person has taken the time to think about the challenges of the situation.

It isn’t all about the money for us. It’s about the people. If you have good people and adequate life insurance, you’re creating a good place for your children in the future.

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  1. BJD says:

    Do you *actually quite like* Option E? Option E sounds a lot like how you have been describing your sister-in-law in recent posts.

  2. Diane says:

    It’s such a personal decision that any criteria seems as good as any other, depending on the person.

    Have you considered that the dynamics of option “E”‘s home will change quite radically after she marries? You may think you can anticipate the changes, or may discount them and think you understand what they will be. But really, you don’t know what the couple’s priorities would be or how their lives may change as they meld together as a family/couple. They could move. Tensions could emerge as a married couple that are not there now as an affianced couple. Financial pressures could mount or abate. It seems the least stable option of all of these hen it comes down to it.

  3. BatGirl says:

    I find this discussion very interesting. I have two siblings much younger then me in age (8 and 9 years younger). On my 18th birthday my parents changed their will to make me the guardian for my siblings (when I was in college and out of state). My mother told me that all the years before my 18th, they hadn’t chosen a guardian. They knew who they didn’t want to have their kids (grandparents, aunts, uncles) but not who they did. So they just hoped for the best and never named a guardian.

    On one hand I’m honored that my parents thought (think) so highly of me that they considered me the best guardian choice even at 18, but it has provided a bit of stress for me. They’re not sick- but their habits (both are lifelong smokers) do not lend themselves to longevity. I have no idea what I would have done at 18, left with a 9 and 10 year old to raise. I am relieved that my youngest brother will be 18 in just a couple of years and I won’t have to worry about that anymore. Of course, that’s likely around the time my husband and I will be starting a family of our own- so trading hypothetical guardianship for actual will probably not be to much of a relief, but still. Guardianship is an honor and burden.

  4. Laura in Seattle says:

    Coincidentally, last night’s episode of “Raising Hope” (a cute comedy on Fox about a single dad) also raised this question. I think you’re right about both the importance of values and the “capacity of parenting”.

    There’s a big difference between liking children and having children – and sometimes people without practical experiences (spending an afternoon with a friend’s child, babysitting, growing up in a large family) to build on tend to think they should have lots of children when they really only enjoy the company of kids in small doses. Parenting is not for everyone.

  5. Ashley says:

    I’m interested why the grandparents on either side aren’t mentioned as possible guardians? It’s true that it’s possible they might not be in fine enough health to support children, but I would think in many cases that decision would be easiest because they are already so involved in the children’s life. (most likely)

    I don’t have children yet, but I am an only child so just thinking about this presents some concerns. At this point, my parents would be nearly my only option. However, if my future husband had wonderful siblings then I guess they would be potential guardians as well.

  6. kristine says:

    Laura, so true!
    I never liked other people’s kids much when I was a young adult, but at a certain point after marrying I longed for a child, and l was ready to do what it takes to be a good parent. I love my children completely! And I am even a teacher now, and suffer separation pangs when my “kids” move on. But if you knew me at 20- you would think that I truly disliked children. People change!

  7. gace says:

    I think you may be putting too much emphasis on the potential guardian having close ties w/extended family. If your children needed to be raised by a guardian w/out strong family ties (but strong in your values), your extended family could help greatly by maintaining contact w/ the minor children and guardian. The extended family should be including the children and guardian in family events so the kids would have the opportunity to foster relationships w/ aunts, uncles, cousins. etc. Hopefully, the relationships would continue into the kids’ adulthood.

  8. Eli says:

    I’d also be interested in your thoughts on naming a trustee other than the guardian, if you want to split the responsibilities and guarantee some benefits remain when your kids reach adult age. College and house down payments come to mind. Good parents are not always good money managers.

  9. Justice Bird says:

    Great post! I agree that values should trump everything else when deciding who should care for your children in the event of the unthinkable. However, in terms of the financial situation, I feel that a discussion of your own financial planning is warranted (not just the financial resources of the prospective guardian) – wouldn’t your own financial assets and insurance be used by the guardian to help raise your kids?

  10. Danna says:

    Our best friends daughter is a teenager and they were discussing this issue with her. She chose us. We live in town, know this family better than anyone else and she is very comfortable with us. We asked a lot of questions and agreed. Mainly because we love her like a daughter. I thought it was great that they took her opinion into account. But I think her parents would have asked us anyway.

  11. Derek says:

    Great points on considering guardianship for your children. I agree that the values of the family must be close to the top of the priorities. I would keep the guardians and trustees separate and consider a professional trustee for the money management. Hopefully the life insurance is sufficiently large and you certainly don’t want conflicts to arise and relationships to be ruined because temptations creep in. Finally, consider writing a “Letter of Instructions” to supplement your legal documents. You can use that to clearly define your desires, goals, and wishes for your children. A great tool for a guardian to refer to should you no longer be around.

  12. Jeanette says:

    As children age and develop relationships with various family members and friends, it makes sense to consider who they best relate to, as well as the other well-articulated considerations you’ve listed here Trent. Young children are often far more adaptable to changing circumstances, no matter how traumatic, than older children or teens.

    Values are indeed important, but no guarantee that your children will embrace them, just as it is no guarantee with parents that are alive.

    A very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I wish more people would give this much thought to this extremely important decision. I have a nephew and my brother and sister in law just assume that HER family members will raise my nephew as her family is a close family and it’s only my brother and I. (I’m 20 years older and in no position to raise him, plus I am far far away geographically from the only real relatives he has and knows. He also could never live in a big city.)

    My nephew has PPD (on the autism scale) and while he has made incredible strides, due to the incredible work of his mother, I don’t know anyone, myself included, who could duplicate/replicate her relationship with him. My brother in no way is able to really care for him as he has his own issues and is just not able to accept my nephew’s condition and its logistics.

    The fact that neither parent has taken this aspect into consideration is mind-boggling to me. (Her family is fairly large, close but not well off and to put it frankly, highly dysfunctional, including addiction and other serious issues. Not judging them, but just to state that they don’t have their own acts together and their own kids have developed severe problems.

    It is amazing to me that so many people, including highly educated and intelligent folks, have done next to no real planning about this key issue. They just assume that their blood relatives will automatically get custody. Something that may 1/not be true legally and 2/not be in the best interests of their children.

    Several people have told me that aside from values and trust, the key is knowing that one individual (if a couple) would do anything/everything needed to raise the kids in their absence–basically, they chose people who were close to being carbon copies of themselve. No parent is perfect, so it’s not possible to find perfect “replacements” if needed. You just do the best you can. You never know what life will bring.

    And if you are honest, you look for people who may not “mirror” you but who are adult enough and responsible enough and flexible enough to mindfully engage in parenting.

    As others have said, don’t rule people out because they don’t have kids. And don’t assume people with kids are necessarily good parents!

  13. Mark Gavagan says:

    This and the prior day’s post on guardians prompted me to finally post an article I wrote on the topic several years ago.

    “Choosing The Best Guardian For Your Kids” can be read at http://organizemyaffairs.com/blog/?p=84

    Trent, you’re welcome to reprint the entire article here as a guest post, if you’d like.

  14. Katia says:

    Good article to get people thinking about this issue. My father died when I was 7 and I knew that if something happened to my mom that my brother and I would be shipped to another state to live with her younger sister & husband, who I knew, but really didn’t want to live with. Not because of where they lived, but they were more of a ‘rough’ family and I didn’t feel the love like in my own family. Thankfully that didn’t happen.

    With my own children, we picked someone with the same moral values and that our children knew and liked. They also were good with how they handled their money, even though they didn’t earn a lot. At the time we chose them, they didn’t have children (and were pretty much set on the idea that they didn’t want children..mainly due to the fact that he was an adult parole officer and she was a social worker, so they saw the ‘bad side’ of people) But as time went on, they did have two children of their own, who we are guardians for. My youngest child will turn 18 this year, so we are past this delima, but I still feel we made the right decision in choosing guardians.

    Proximity (sp?) to family shouldn’t really be a huge factor because people do move with their jobs. Family stability, moral values, and financial responsibility/dependability were our major factors in choosing.

    And for a side note: we were chosen as guardians by two sets of friends…both ended up having four children around our children’s ages, but at the time lived in two different states. They both ended up in the Houston area, so I am glad that no huge hurricanes or other disaster has hit that area or we could have ended up with much more than we bargained for! (but now all but 3 of these children are also over 18)

  15. Kristen says:

    It surprises me that one of your concerns is whether they have the financial means necessary to support your children. That should not be a concern because you should ensure that there is sufficient term life insurance that would cover the cost of raising your kids should the need arise. If the worst were to happen and your children became orphans, the life insurance should kick into a trust which could be used for expenses such as food, clothing, college, etc.

  16. Peggy Dague says:

    When our children were young we chose a family much like ours who had three children, we had four. We discussed it with them and even though they were financially responsible people, they brought it up first that they did not want to control money for the children. We named them as guardians and our bank for financial decisions. Luckily as in most situations of this kind we never had to use this option. They probably breathed a sigh of relief too. Seven children would be a lot!

  17. Rebecca says:

    Just wanted to thank all of you for sharing on this topic. My partner and I have a new baby girl, and are just starting to tackle many of these types of questions. It is wonderful to have access to a community of folks who think and talk about these issues!

  18. Yvi says:

    “Currently, we have “Option A” listed as guardians, with a strong likelihood of switching to “Option E” in the next year or two”

    I don’t really want to imagine how “switching” would work in this situation… How do you tell someone you wouldn’t want them to raise your children anymore?

  19. Golfing Girl says:

    We currently have our friends of 9 years listed on our wills (previously was my brother and his wife). We changed our wills when we realized that our child (now children) would be raised as closely as possible to how they currently are if we made that change, plus my brother is 12 years older than me so he would be in his mid 50’s when my son is 10. We talked to our friends and asked them if they would be interested. They gladly accepted and we have made certain that we are properly insured so it would not be a financial burden.

  20. Claudia says:

    What about the most important question of all-do they love my children?

  21. Pattie, RN says:

    Looking forward and back on this…we chose a sibling who had raised two kids as a single mom, who was also a CPA and could manage the estate. Blessedly, a moot exercise. I would have preferred my parents, but they were too old and ill to take on little boys…or lord forbid, TEEN boys.

    Now…we are the guardians for our five year old grandson and his soon-to-be born sibling. My parents were 70+ when I was expecting #2, whereas DH and I are in our fifties with our son and wife at this crossroads. We have a large but modest home in a great school district. And, if truth be told, my soldier-son and his wife have excellent life insurance, so we would not have to face poverty to add these kids to our household. We pray that this will be a moot point for them as for us, but we are young enough to give our grandkids what they need in case of tragedy. (The other grandmother lives hand-to-mouth, as she has all her life, whcih has been filled with poor judgement. As far as we can tell, raising the lovely woman who our son married is the only thing she didn’t screw up. Her other daughter is following in mom’s footsteps of single motherhood and minimum wage jobs. I would kill before our grandkids ended up with her. Thank God, her daughter agrees…)

  22. Georgia says:

    I was almost in the situation of having to go to family. My mother died when I was 10. I had 2 younger brothers. Dad told us that if he didn’t remarry, he would have to split us up and farm us out to family. He couldn’t raise 3 kids on his own. Luckily, he married a woman we had known all our lives and she also had 3 children.

    I realize that I made the same mistake as Dad. My husband and I did not make any guardianship choices. We did not need them, they are now in their mid-40’s, but any in both our families would have taken charge. Isn’t it amazing, when we look back, how much we missed?

  23. Elaine says:

    When we looked for guardians(and I don’t think there is a more emotional issue) we looked first for someone who would love our children as much as their own. This is very important. You do not want to put them in a situation where they don’t matter enormously to their guardians. This is sometimes not possible when the couple has kids the same age, no matter how much they love them. Then they should have the same basic values and be willing to emphasize what you would have- such as education, etc. It is important that YOU provide for your children-financial stress could hurt your kids relationship with their guardians. We bypassed all of our brothers and sisters and chose first cousins who had grown children(the last one in high school), who loved our kids and were superb parents. We had trustees to manage the money because that would have been a burden to them. Once you choose a guardian and they accept you should make sure they are involved in your kids life and know how important it is to you that they stay in close contact with family members.

  24. Frugal-MD says:

    The whole guardian issue is the primary reason my wife and I have still not established a will — we don’t have many friends or family in general. Of the few choices, every one seems to fall short in terms of values, willingness, logistics, etc.

    It’s not a situation we’re very comforable with, but there just doesn’t seem to be a good choice available based on the limited number of options we have. Those that have several choices for guardianship are very blessed and I hope this article helps them to make the best decision!

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