Putting together an estate plan involves answering a lot of questions and making some tough decisions. But without a doubt, the decision people grapple with the most is figuring out who will take care of the kids if both parents die or are incapacitated. In fact, whenever I discuss planning with younger couples this issue is easily the most daunting task.
I recently stumbled onto an article from a few years ago by New York Times contributor K.J. Dell'Antonia which sparked a great discussion on this issue. Take a minute to breeze through the comments there and you'll see that the struggle with this decision is real. Like many people I know, there are many that chose the "ostrich method." They stuck their head in the sand.
But other commenters there give me hope- they took the time to work through the "ugh" of figuring it out. Picking a guardian can be tough, but its not impossible. The following steps are a roadmap to getting started.
1. Know the Two Types of Guardian: Part of the difficulty lies in the roles a person will play for your children. There are really two guardians to consider: the estate guardian and the personal guardian. The estate guardian manages the money or property left to the minor child, while the personal guardian handles the day-to-day decision making.
2. Who to Choose for Each Role: This is the tough question, but not an impossible one. Think of it like hiring someone for a job. Recruiters and hiring managers look for people to fill a role based on how well a person's skills, experience, and personality match a job description. Choosing guardians follows exactly the same process. Your cousin with an MBA in finance working as a CFO might be a great choice to manage any money you leave for your children. Your neighbors who always volunteers to watch your little ones for date nights and always agree with you about discipline? Do they share your values? They might be great to fill the parental role.
3. Keep the Two Roles Separate: As you know, raising a child is a big job. Frankly, it is common courtesy to only put so much on your chosen guardians' plates. Plus, making it a team effort creates a network of support to raise your children.
4. Talk About It: It is a good idea to get everyone on board with the plan. Also, it is important to learn as much as you can about your chosen guardians. For your peace of mind, you want to make sure they share your values and consider the opportunity the honor it truly is.
5. Make it Formal and Part of a Plan: With the hard part out of the way, making your guardianship plan an official part of your estate plan is a no-brainer. Why leave things to chance after so much effort? A knowledgable estate planner can help you craft a unique plan for your situation, with your insurance and other funding sources optimally integrated to provide for your child's future.
6. Review the Plan Every Two to Three Years: Things change. Your children will grow and will develop different needs. Your chosen guardians may have situations arise that will make potential guardianship problematic. By periodically reviewing and making any necessary adjustments you make sure everything is as it should be.
Choosing a potential guardian for your children is tough. Just know that its not impossible and there are qualified people ready to help you put the plan together.
Andrew Wright is a Michigan-licensed attorney who specializes in estate planning for families. Learn more about him here.