Choosing guardians for your children

For any parent, choosing guardians is a struggle. You want to pick the right person for your children, of course. But weighing the pros and cons of select friends and family members isn’t pretty, and you also have to worry about hurt feelings from those you didn’t select. Plus, no one likes to think – or talk – about death.

These issues stop many parents from writing a will or naming guardians. But it’s important to tackle them head-on; perhaps even more so if your children have special needs, as Lisa’s son does. As we saw on the tape, siblings often worry that they’ll forever be in the caretaker role, and it’s important to quiet those concerns.

How do you go about making a selection?

  • Make a list. This is the easiest way to jump in – just start jotting down names of people you are considering. Think beyond immediate family members – aunts, uncles, cousins, even friends can be potential guardians. Write it all down, just as a brain dump. While doing so, keep in mind the two main jobs of the guardian: To make basic decisions for your child – the same decisions you would make – and to manage any inheritance that might be left. A trust – and if you have a special needs child, you definitely want a trust – can help you with that. You can select separate people for each duty, or merge them into one role.
  • Start weeding. Go over each name on the list and consider a few things: Would they want the job? Do they have time to take care of your children? Do they share your values – in other words, can you trust them to make the decisions you would make? Do they have the resources necessary, or are you leaving enough behind (in life insurance or trust funds) that it won’t matter? As you ask yourself these questions, begin paring your list.
  • Be practical. Two questions not mentioned above but of equal importance are 1. Where does this person live? And 2. Is the person young enough and in good enough health to take on the task? Do you want your children to have to relocate? Would the guardian be willing to relocate? And is he or she in a position, health- and age-wise, to care for your children?
  • Be fair. No one is going to be perfect in your eyes, because they are not you. But you need to choose the next best thing. Don’t let your decision be clouded by how others feel – whether your sister is going to be mad she wasn’t chosen. The reality is, you don’t have to tell her. The conversation about guardianship can be strictly between you and the chosen guardian. If someone outside that relationship asks about your reasoning, or is hurt that they weren’t chosen for the role, honestly explain your thought process.
Jean Chatzky

About Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP’s personal finance ambassador, and a contributing editor for Fortune magazine. Jean is a best-selling author; her eighth and most recent book is Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security. She believes knowing how to manage our money is one of the most important life skills for people at every age and has made it her mission to help simplify money matters, increasing financial literacy both now and for the future. In April 2013 Jean launched Jean Chatzky's Money School , a series of college-style, interactive online personal finance courses that give men and women across the country the opportunity to learn from and interact directly with her. Jean lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.
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