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How to Choose a Guardian for Your Child

Giddy with relief, I phoned my mother.

"We finally did it!" I crowed. After years of procrastinating, my husband and I had drafted wills that named guardians for our 4-year-old son in case of our know. Those guardians were my parents. Mom, who had graciously agreed to this idea long before, was just as pleased as I'd hoped she'd be. Then she asked the one thing I'd hoped she wouldn't: "So, who's your backup?"

Gulp. I explained that if she and Dad couldn't serve, we'd chosen my husband's sister, Kathi, to be next in line. I mentioned that my brother, whom I adore, didn't seem like a good candidate because he was single and had little experience with kids.

Heavy pause on Mom's end. "I'm sure Kathi would do a fine job," she said at last. "But have you thought about how this could hurt your brother's feelings? You have to tell him now, before he finds out and gets the wrong idea."

Just like that, my relief turned to dread: I joined the legions of parents cowed by the politics of picking a guardian. There are so many toes you can step on -- not only your siblings' toes, of course, but also your spouse's, your spouse's siblings', your parents', his parents', their close friends', his and your close friends'. Small wonder that two-thirds of American parents haven't chosen a guardian, let alone written a will.

But not choosing means that if your kids become orphaned, the courts will decide who gets to raise them. And a judge might just pick your awful Aunt Edwina. If no one agrees to take the children, they could land in foster care. If too many people want them, "you're going to have your relatives fighting in court to become the guardians," says Brenda Moses, a lawyer in Blacksburg, Virginia, who handles wills and estates. "It can get very nasty."

So you'll want to find a guardian yourself, and there's no time like the present. Here's how to do it without unduly straining yourself or your relationships.

Melissa Balmain has written for Babytalk, Details, and The New Yorker.

Getting started

Define your dream parent
Your choice will be made easier if you first list the qualities that matter most to you in a caregiver -- and in your kids. "Picture your children at eighteen or twenty-one: What do you want them to be like?" asks Donald Saposnek, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist who directs Family Mediation Service of Santa Cruz, California. "What spiritual and moral values do you want them to have? What practical skills? Whom do you want their role models to be? Establishing guardianship is very much like deciding what you're all about as parents." Saposnek says such soul-searching has helped his clients -- as well as him and his wife -- choose guardians.

Unless your list of must-have qualities exactly matches your spouse's list (and what are the chances of that?), collaborate on a third list of traits you both value, suggests Saposnek. Honesty, say. Kindness. Generosity. "Then come up with potential candidates for guardianship and assess how well those people match up with your joint list."

After that, ask yourself these questions to further narrow the field:

* Is each candidate physically up to the challenge of raising your kids to adulthood?
* Does he live nearby, and if not, would it be too hard on your children to relocate?
* Are his finances and relationships stable?
* Does he already have kids? (Parents often choose guardians with children close in age to their own for companionship. On the other hand, if you have a lot of kids and don't want to split them up, a childless couple may be a better choice.)

Be sensitive to your spouse
My brother versus your brother. Your hometown versus mine. With such personal issues as these on the table, it's no surprise couples argue about guardianship.

"So often, the parents want their own family to get the kids," says Janine Stasior, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist in Lexington, Massachusetts. "They want to re-create what was wonderful about their own childhood."

Simple communication can smooth the waters. "If you stick with 'I statements' -- 'I feel,' 'I don't like' -- you'll keep things clear and less defensive," Saposnek says. "And even though it's a little mechanical sounding, try repeating what the other person just said in the form of a question: 'Are you saying you don't trust Uncle Frank because he offended your mother?'" This will help both of you to feel that the other person's listening.

Above all, keep your discussion in perspective. When Barbara and Kevin Marshall of Winona, Minnesota, had the first of their two kids, they "pouted" over whose family would inherit little Connor, remembers Barbara. "Then we reminded ourselves that we don't need to win in this situation -- our child does." So in addition to pondering the sorts of questions listed above, they tried to put themselves in Connor's shoes: Which people was he closest to? Who would truly have his best interests in mind? Their answers helped them settle on one of Kevin's brothers.

It's not immediate family only

Consider family and friends
Often, the stickiest question is whether to choose a guardian outside the family. "It was heart wrenching," says Donna*, a San Diego mom who, like many parents, feels the issue of guardianship is so sensitive that she'd rather not reveal her real name. "We were thinking of going with our parents, originally," she says. But Donna's mother and father were divorcing. Her husband's were "focusing on themselves and traveling." And neither set of parents seemed ready to guide their granddaughter through an ever faster-paced society.

"Seeing them for what they were was almost like a little death," Donna says, "because you want them to be that ideal you had in your mind." She and her husband wound up choosing some very dear friends instead. "On all the big issues, and on morality, our values are the same."

Naming friends as guardians is increasingly common, though relatives are still the most popular picks. "We decided to choose from among our siblings out of loyalty," says Annette*, a mother of three in Blacksburg, Virginia. "How could we tell them we had chosen our friends over them?"

Whether you opt for kith or kin, be sure to name someone who'll really love your child. "I've seen guardianship arrangements go terribly wrong when the role was taken on out of a sense of duty rather than a sense of passion and commitment to the child," Stasior says. "Responsibility can turn into resentment."

Ask permission first
So you've decided, after much deliberation and debate, upon the perfect guardian for your child: Congratulations! But don't break out the champagne just yet. The people you name have the right to refuse, so you'll want to discuss the matter with them before you set your arrangements in stone.

How to ask? Be respectful and complimentary. Speak openly about your finances -- how much insurance you have, whether there will be a fund for education, and so on. "The first question that many potential guardians have is 'Will there be enough money so this isn't a financial burden for me?'" says David Bihl, a certified financial planner in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Offer your guardian-elect ample time to think it over. "You need time to settle into the enormity of what you're really committing to," says Donna, who has consented to be the guardian for the kids of her children's guardians. "It's not like you're picking out a bridesmaid dress. It would fundamentally change your life."

Chances are, your top pick will say yes. But no's aren't uncommon, Saposnek says. Some people fear that their own kids or careers leave them too little time to take on such a responsibility. Others just don't feel cut out for surrogate parenthood. If your choice does refuse, you need to act carefully to prevent rifts in your relationship. "Don't stop calling this person, even though that may be what you feel like doing," says Saposnek. "Instead, try making more contact with him to show there's good faith."

A little empathy doesn't hurt, either. Says one Lexington, Massachusetts, mom: "When our first child was born, we chose my husband's parents as guardians, but then we had two more kids. My in-laws told us they were concerned that they wouldn't have the endurance to keep up with all three of them, and asked if there was someone younger who could serve as guardian." She says her feelings weren't bruised. "Looking at it from their point of view, I realized that to burden them in their seventies with three small children would be wrong."

Dealing with the legalities

Make it legal
After you've found your guardian, and maybe a trustee (see "Should You Choose a Trustee, Too?"), you'll need to name that person in a written will or trust. Use a lawyer, or, if your kids have no unusual needs and your financial plans are simple, try a do-it-yourself form or program. Get everything signed and witnessed according to your state's laws. A few tips to keep in mind:

* You may envision both halves of a couple acting as guardians for your kids -- and you should explain this in the will. But list just one person as the official guardian. That way, if the couple eventually breaks up, your child won't be caught in a custody battle.
* Name a backup, in case your first choice is unable to serve.
* Pick a guardian, even if you're divorced. Although the courts typically will favor your ex, you'll want a plan in case he dies or is deemed incompetent.

Make your wishes known
Writing a letter of instruction can be comforting to you; receiving one can be helpful to the guardian. Still, such documents have few legal teeth. "The courts generally will not get involved in enforcing parents' wishes," lawyer Brenda Moses says, "even on important issues like which faith the child will be raised in."

So if you really want assurance that your guardian will honor your requests, try making them while you're alive. "One of my husband's main concerns was whether my parents would let his parents see our kids often enough," says Amy Maupin of Peotone, Illinois, mother of Shelby, 10, Carley, 8, and Kale, 7. "We told my parents, 'We definitely want to choose you, but we want to make sure his side of the family is still involved.' They completely understood."

Wrapping things up

Revisit your choice
"It's frightening to pick a guardian for your child for forever," Annette says. Luckily, you don't have to. She and her husband, for instance, have changed guardians twice, based on such factors as how responsible their siblings -- and their siblings' spouses -- have become (or not become) over time. The husband of the sister they picked initially, for example, hasn't been the loving uncle they had hoped for. "We decided there was no way we'd let our kids go to a family where one parent had animosity toward them," says Annette. Meanwhile, her brother -- who once seemed too young and footloose to be a guardian -- has turned 30, settled down, and been promoted to the top of the list.

Lawyers and therapists suggest reviewing your choice every few years, especially after major changes in your life or your guardian's. If you do switch, it costs just a fraction of drafting an entire will.

Break the news
Do the people you didn't pick need to know? Some parents say no. But maybe, like me, you feel compelled to tell everyone involved -- first choice, backup choice, even a nonchoice who might otherwise assume he's made the cut. Perhaps you're afraid that your top choice is going to blab to the others. Or you want to prevent hurt feelings after you're gone, when they might harm your kids' relationship with the adults they need most. What to do then?

Try pinning the decision on neutral criteria, "maybe people's parenting experience or the size of their existing families," says Moses. Her mother-in-law was upset, she says, to find out that she'd been chosen as backup guardian for Moses's 6-year-old, Jordan, and 3-year-old, Hope, in favor of their maternal grandparents. So Moses and her husband explained that her parents lived much closer by and, as a result, the girls knew them better. "I don't think she ended the phone call happily," Moses admits. Still, her feathers seemed less ruffled, and she soon accepted the arrangement.

When I finally worked up the nerve to tell my brother my own plan (my parents as guardians, my sister-in-law as backup), he didn't seem offended. He even looked a little relieved. I'm sure I did. I also felt more confident about the process -- a good thing, since my husband and I have recently had a second child and need to update our wills.

"Hey, Mom, it's me. Got a minute?"