Be Prepared! Although I was never a Boy Scout, their motto rings true for all of us. I remember my early days of being a first-time mom and the effort and skill it took to pack the diaper bag. I never knew what to expect so I planned for every contingency… diapers, wipes, toys, extra clothes, snacks, hand sanitizer, sunscreen. I was ready for anything.
Sadly, most of us parents spend more time and energy on a family outing than on our estate plan: The legal documents that protect our family in case something should happen to us. We are woefully ill-equipped. And our children, our most precious assets, are the ones who suffer from our lack of preparation.
In Arizona, a Will is the only legal document where you can tell a court who you want to act as guardian for your children. A legal guardian is the person who cares for your children in case you are not able. If you do not make this choice, your kids will be orphaned and a judge will decide who will raise them. A judge might pick the sister you feel is a terrible parent. Or family members might fight to be named guardian. It can get pretty ugly.
As we head into the summer, along with planning vacations and camping trips, spend some time planning for unexpected events. For your children’s sake, it’s best to Be Prepared.
Here are some tips for getting started.
1. Make a list of potential guardians. Think about your family and close friends. Write their names down and rank your first preferences. Think about whether you want both your sister and her husband to be named as guardians, or just your sister? What if they get divorced? This is a preliminary list so do not worry about making your choice right now.
2. Write down a list of “must have” qualities. What traits are important to you. Honesty? Kindness? Generosity? Look at your potential candidates and assess how they compare with this list.
3. Consider your parenting style. Are you a laid back parent or more strict? How do you discipline your children? What are your family rules? What activities does your family participate in? If you have a laid back parenting style, choosing a guardian with a strict style may pose a difficult transition for your children.
4. Consider values, beliefs, and religion. Religious beliefs and practices can be a source of conflict. If you want your children to be raised with a specific value or belief system, your guardian should share those same values or be willing to provide that environment in their home.
5. Consider physical location. Depending on your child’s age, transition to a far away location may be difficult, especially when they may be grieving the death of a parent.
6. Discuss what is in your child’s best interest. Living with another family will be a big transition for your children. It will be more difficult if the children do not already have a good relationship with the guardian or their children. Consider their personalities, learning styles, and coping abilities.
7. Be sensitive to your spouse’s wishes. Many couples fail to choose a guardian because they do not agree. Remember, it is not about you winning the battle. Your child needs to win. Basic communication can help ease the tensions. Use phrases such as “I think” and “I don’t feel” to be less defensive.
8. Ask permission. Once you have made decisions about who you choose (and your second and third choices to act as “back-ups”), ask permission. You’ll want to know if they will accept this position. Speak to them about your finances and if there will be any money to defray the financial burden. Your choice may not feel that they are healthy enough or have enough energy depending on their age. Share why you have chosen them. Be considerate of their decision-making process. Raising other people’s children would be a fundamental change to their own life.
9. Make it legal. Once your named guardians have agreed, draw up your legal documents. In Arizona, you may handwrite and sign your Will. However, it is wise to at least have an attorney review your handwritten Will to make sure it is legally accurate. It should only cost a few hundred dollars to have an experienced estate planning attorney draft your Will. Money well spent for peace of mind. But when it comes to a Will, something is better than nothing.
10. Have discussions and leave instructions. After your documents have been created, let your guardian know. Have them over for dinner and share your values, parenting style, hopes, and dreams for your children. Take time to write down “instructions” for them for later. Share what motivates your child, or scares them. Give them tools to help your child transition. Let other family members know who you have chosen and why so there are no hurt feelings or surprises. Ask them to support your decision.
Choosing a guardian to raise your children is maybe one of the most important decisions you can make in your lifetime. Prioritize this decision and create your Will. Life is full of unanticipated events. That is why it is imperative to Be Prepared!