One of the most important aspects of creating a will is ensuring that your dependents are taken care of, whether that’s your child, your pet, or your spouse. For new parents, it’s even more important to have a will - not just because it ensures your children will be provided for from your estate, but also because it appoints a guardian for their care in case anything happens to you and the other parent.
Willful founders Kevin Oulds and Erin Bury are expecting their first child, so after years of helping customers make a plan for their children in case they pass away, it’s now their turn to create the plan. After sitting down to discuss the topic, they put together the following guide to choosing a guardian in your will - arguably one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a new parent.
First things first...
What Is A Guardian And Why Do I Need One?
A guardian is a person or people (typically a couple) who will take care of your child/children if you and the other parent pass away. You can separate this role into two (a guardian to manage your child’s assets, a custodian to manage their physical custody) but most people just choose the same person to handle both.
No one wants to think about their own mortality, and certainly no one wants to think about a world where their young children are around and they are not. A will puts a plan in place for when you pass away, and it includes a guardian just in case you do pass away while your children are minors. If you don’t have a will, or you don’t appoint a guardian in that will, the courts will appoint someone for you, and it may not be the person or people you would have wanted to raise your children.
How To Choose A Guardian For Your Children
Knowing how important it is to appoint a guardian for your children, let’s get into the steps you can take to make this difficult decision.
1. Set aside time to discuss what’s important to you
The first step when choosing a guardian is to set aside time to think about your values as parents, and the values you would have for your children’s upbringing - and to discuss this with your partner (if you have one).
While most people start with the people they would want to act in this role, Erin and Kevin started with the qualities of the environment that they would want their children to be in, and then the people who fit that environment were a natural next step.
Here are great thought starters that can be used as part of this conversation:
- What qualities are important to us as parents? For example: patient, kind, hardworking, or fun.
- What holidays and traditions are important that they celebrate?
- What values are important for them to learn? For example: hard work, manners, the value of education.
- What religious beliefs (if any) do we have, and do we have any issues with the kids being raised in an environment with different religious beliefs or level of religious devotion?
- How much do we care about our children being exposed to different cultures and experiences, either through travel, multicultural experiences, food, or just a general sense of worldliness?
- What kind of career role models would we want them to have?
- Do we want them to be raised in a home with other kids or not (or with first-time parents vs. experienced parents)?
- Where do we want them to live geographically?
Kevin and Erin discussed this when they were expecting parents, so there was an added bonus of helping them to explore some of these questions for themselves as new parents.
2. Consider who in your life could be a candidate for guardianship
After you’ve spent some time thinking about what’s important to you, then you can move on to who would fulfill the role of guardian while upholding those qualities and values. This is an exercise that’s best done separately, and then you can come together with your partner to discuss your individual choices and come to an agreement on who you would appoint.
A guardian is typically a family member or close friend, and it can be an individual or a couple. It can be someone who lives close by, or someone who’s out of the country, but it’s important to note that the courts prefer someone who is close to the child so there’s less disruption (and if you are appointing an out of country guardian, you may want to work with a lawyer to add verbiage to your will explaining your choice).
Ultimately there’s really just one question to ask when considering a guardian: would they provide a loving, stable home for our child/children? If the answer is yes, that may be enough for you.
But whether you’re considering your parents, a sibling, another relative, or a friend, here’s a list of questions that could help you refine that list and ensure that the person is a fit:
- Is this person at a stage in their life where they would want to be a parent? For example if you’re choosing your parents as guardians, they likely haven’t been a parent to a young child in decades. While you may trust them implicitly, would they really want to parent a child again full-time? Alternatively, if you’re considering a younger sibling or childless friend, if they don’t have children they may not want to become an instant parent.
- Could this person manage our children in addition to their own children? It’s common to consider close friends who have young children, since they’ve been there and they know the ins and outs of parenting (and your kids might be around the same age). But it could be unmanageable for them to add more kids to their brood.
- Do they have a stable financial and home situation? If a guardian was caring for your children, they would have access to the funds you’ve left for the children and can use them for reasonable care (tuition, clothing, food, shelter, etc.) - so it’s not like your chosen guardian needs to be rich. But you should think about the environment they would be raised in, and the financial stress this might add to the selected guardian, even if they wouldn’t have to cover the costs on their own.
- Do they match the values that we set out? Erin and Kevin listed off several responsible, lovely people in their lives who might make great guardians - but they don’t match the list of values they set out for their kids. This might be reason enough to cross someone off your list.
- Would they even be open to taking on this role? This can be a big question mark until you talk to them, but some people in your life are likely vocal about NOT wanting the responsibility of being a parent, so this is a key consideration.
After you review these questions, hopefully you’ll have a list of potential guardians in order of your preference - and more importantly, you’ll have a list of people who DON’T fit the bill. Now you’re ready to discuss with your partner (if relevant) and make a final decision
3. Discuss and refine your list with your partner (if relevant)
Hopefully you and your partner have each come up with a list of people that you think would make great guardians. Chances are, you’ll have a couple common names on that list - but you’ll also have a list of “absolutely not” people who don’t match the values you identified. Now it’s time to compare notes.
This is likely the hardest conversation you’ll have when creating your will, since it’s common for partners to disagree on who the chosen guardian should be. According to our research at Willful, only 47% of parents agree on who should be the guardian for their child. Kevin and Erin definitely had some heated moments when discussing this, but when they couldn’t agree, they fell back on the first step: what are the values we care about, and who would best represent those.
The goal in this step is NOT to come to a perfect decision; it’s to come to A decision. Again, if you can’t agree and therefore don’t set up a will at all, and you both pass away, the courts are going to decide that for you - and your family is going to be left with the stress of choosing a guardian that would represent your wishes. You can update your will at any time to remove or change a guardian, so this step is all about coming to a “right now” decision, even if you’re not 100% sure you won’t change it in future.
Your goal in this step is to come up with:
- Your combined “no” list - the folks you don’t think are the best fit. This will likely be a tough list to create, since it will have many loved ones who might be expecting to be asked. Remember that you shouldn’t choose a guardian based on who will be upset if you don’t choose them - you should choose them because YOU want them in that role
- Your primary guardian - the person or couple that you and your spouse will appoint in each of your wills
- Your backup guardians - the people who will step in as guardians if the primary guardians are unwilling or unable to fulfill that role (it’s important to note that a guardian can turn down the role, so having backups means there’s an additional layer of peace of mind)
4. Discuss with any chosen guardian and any backup guardians
One of the most important aspects of appointing key roles in your will, whether it’s your executor, pet guardian, or guardian for minor children, is to inform them and ensure they’re okay with being named in that role. If you appoint a guardian in your will without running it by them first, they have every right to decline when the time comes - so it’s better to ensure they’re up for the role before formalizing it in your will.
Here are a few tips for having the conversation:
- Pick the right time and place: Choose a time when you can chat about it at length in a casual setting - for example over a Zoom wine date, or over dinner. Don’t spring it on them in a text message or when you have 15 minutes to chat between work calls - they might have a lot of questions!
- Start with why: highlight why you think they’d be amazing parents, and why you’ve selected them in this role. You’ve chosen them for a reason, so it’s important to highlight why you think they fit with your values - this will help them understand why them over someone else.
- Give them time to think about it: After you’ve shared why you want them to act as your guardians, let them know you’ll answer any questions they have, and that you don’t expect a decision in the moment. Give them time to think it over, come back with more questions, and to discuss amongst themselves (or with family members/friends).
- Give them an out: It’s extremely fair for them to say no. This is a massive decision that could alter their lives - and they wouldn’t want to let you down. If they say yes, it’s because they’re fully in; and if they say no, they have their reasons. You don’t want to let their decision affect your relationship, so go in preparing yourself for a potential “no”
- Have a backup plan: If your primary guardians say no, you’ll need to move down your list to the backups you identified and repeat this process with them. If your primary guardians say no and you still appoint them in your will, they have every right to decline the role when the time comes. It’s better to appoint someone who has the capacity and desire to act in that role, even if they’re not your number one choice.
- Speak with your backup guardians as well: Remember that you likely will also want to have a conversation with your backup guardians if for some reason your primary guardians are unable or unwilling to fulfill the role. While it’s unlikely they would be called on, it’s best to have an extra layer of backup just in case.
5. Formalize it in your will
By now you’ve chosen a guardian (or guardians) and backup guardians, and you know you’ve chosen those people because they reflect your values as a parent. Kudos! This is the hardest part. Now it’s time to formalize it in your will.
There are many ways to make your will! Luckily with Willful you can create or update your will in less than 20 minutes, and you can easily add guardians for your children as well as guardians for your pets. Of course Willful also guides you through allocating your estate - if for any reason your minor children receive an inheritance from you, their share will be held in trust until the age you specify on Willful, and your guardians will have access to those funds for their care).
That’s it! You’re done, and you can rest easy knowing that you’ve checked this important task off your list. While we hope your guardians will never have to act in that role, your will gives you peace of mind that if anything does happen, your children will be in the best possible hands.