Our incredibly busy lives make us all prone to focus primarily on needs that are immediate but not necessarily most important. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of parents who spend more time selecting and preparing instructions for a babysitter than selecting and preparing instructions for a guardian for their children. Babysitter issues are undoubtedly important and capture our attention because they are immediate needs. However, the babysitter will spend only a few hours with your children, and you will be only a phone call away if any questions arise. Even more important is selecting a guardian to care for your children in the event an accident leaves your children without their parents.

Despite the fact that a guardian would devote years to raising your children and make many crucial decisions about your children’s well-being, the selection of a guardian is a decision a surprising number of parents put on the back burner.  Certainly no one likes to contemplate their children growing up without them, but the risk of ignoring that possibility is that, if the unthinkable happens and you have not nominated a guardian for your children, a court will have to make the decision without your input. The future of your children is simply too important to leave to the discretion of the courts when you are the one most qualified to know what is in your children’s best interests.

Consider the following steps toward making the best decision for your children.

1.       Identify Your Parenting Priorities. In raising your children, what is most important to you? What do you consider to be in their best interests? Impartation of certain moral values or religious beliefs? A private school education?  A large yard or safe neighborhood where they can run and play freely? A stable upbringing in the same community? Diverse life experiences? Having one parent at home or with a significant amount of flexibility and free time to devote to the children? A proactive parenting style or a relaxed parenting style? Strong encouragement of advanced education? Maintaining a certain standard of living?

2.       Narrow Your List. You are an unusually fortunate parent if you have people in your life to be guardians for your children who possess all of your same priorities or are in a position to make all of your priorities a reality. So, give some serious thought to your priorities, and narrow your list down to those which are non-negotiable.

3.       List Potential Guardians. Come up with as long an initial list as you can. At a minimum, guardian candidates should be mature, responsible, and people with whom your children feel comfortable.

4.      Compare Your Priorities List to Your Guardian List. Determine who are the best candidates based on their willingness and ability to meet your top priorities identified in step two. Ideally you will identify a primary guardian and at least one backup guardian. This step may help resolve any disagreement between you and your spouse as to the best guardian candidate since it shifts the analysis from which candidate you like best to which candidate best fits your priorities for your children. Approach this step with an open mind; you may adore your sister more than anyone else in the world next to your children, but if her lifestyle and circumstances in life make it unlikely she will be able to make your priorities for your children her priorities, it may not be in the best interests of your children to nominate her as their guardian. Remember that, in the midst of the immense trauma of losing their parents, what is likely to be most comforting to children is preservation of as much stability and consistency as possible.

5.      Talk with the Guardian Candidates. It is absolutely imperative that you have candid conversations with your guardian candidates to be sure they are willing and able to serve as guardians if it becomes necessary. Convey that you would appreciate their complete honesty and that there will be no hard feelings if they feel they cannot accept the responsibility. Now is the time for them to speak up so you have the opportunity to select someone else.

6.       Put It in Writing. Under North Carolina law, the courts are required to give your “testamentary recommendation” about a guardian for your children “substantial weight.” Therefore, you must put your guardian nominations in your will. Guardian nominations are one of the primary reasons all parents of young children should have a will.

7.       Provide Financial Support. Whether through savings or life insurance, be sure that, if anything happens to you, you have provided money to support your children to the greatest extent possible. This may impact the results of steps four and five since the guardian candidates’ ability to meet your priorities and accept responsibility for your children may affected by finances. In addition to funds to cover basic necessities, consider having sufficient savings or insurance to cover private school, college education, a home with a yard, or a stay-at-home guardian if those are among your priorities for your children.

8.      Leave Instructions. Consider writing a letter to the guardian about your desires for your children and your requests regarding their upbringing. The priorities you identified in step one will be a starting place for this letter. Seal the letter and a copy of your will in an envelope and give it to the guardian. While an instruction letter is not legally enforceable, the guardian will be grateful for the guidance and insight into your wishes. The letter may also be meaningful to your children one day as an expression of your care for them and hopes for their future.

Odds are that you live well beyond seeing your children into adulthood, but please don’t take your chances and fail to have any planning in place just in case. Give yourself the peace of mind of knowing you have done all you can to protect and ensure the best interests of your children whatever life might bring.


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