Choosing a Guardian for Your Baby
by Susan Miller, BScN
Planning for the care of your child if you were to die can be an uncomfortable subject to contemplate. However, choosing a guardian for your child is an important responsibility of parenthood. In most cases, the remaining parent is automatically the guardian of a minor child. In the unlikely event that both parents die, there needs to be a legally appointed guardian to care for the minor child (or children) of the family. Deciding on guardianship for your child is one of the most personal and important decisions you will ever have to make as a parent. Some people find that making this choice is overwhelming and keep putting it off. One of the most common reasons given for this procrastination is that the parents of the child have different opinions about who should be their child’s chosen guardian.
Choosing a guardian is one decision you should not leave to chance. If a child is left with no surviving parents and there is no legal guardian appointed in the parents’ wills, or no will exists, a formal legal process will need to be completed before a child can be placed with a permanent guardian. In many cases the child’s grandparent, aunt, uncle or family friend comes forward and offers to take care of the child in the short term. This does not mean that the child will necessarily be left with the temporary guardian.
Any relative or family friend may petition the courts to apply for permanent guardianship of the child. This is a costly legal process that takes weeks to months to complete. An in-depth home study and background check will be done by a court appointed social worker. The court will then decide on the suitability of the applicant to become the legal guardian of the child. This process can be long, stressful and expensive for the prospective guardian.
Often, applications for guardianship come from different sides of the family. This has the potential to become a drawn out battle between the parties involved while the child marks time, possibly in foster care. The court will award guardianship based on the principle of “what is in the best interest of the child.” If there has been a battle between the two sides of the family, this is likely to pose problems for the child in future years.
As you are deciding on a guardian for your child you will probably not come up with the “perfect” choice. You will need to pick the best choice you have at this point in time. Remember that as circumstances change, you can always change your choice of guardian. Most people review their wills as their family grows, their situation changes or the life circumstances of their intended guardian change.
There are some obvious and practical factors to consider when choosing a guardian. Most people want to choose someone who is close to their own age and who already knows their child. This will likely be a close relative or friend or even the child’s grandparent. Know what is most important to you as you envision your child growing up. Family values, religion, parenting style, education and artistic and athletic interests are some major areas to consider. You will be looking for someone who is similar to you but they will not be the same as you. It is preferable to choose a guardian who lives near to where you live but if the ideal guardian lives on the other side of the country this should not be a barrier to naming them.
Many people worry about the financial burden that the guardian may have to shoulder in raising their child (or children). Parents should consider taking out a life insurance policy to provide for their child if they should die. This insurance policy can ease the financial burden for the guardian.
When appointing a guardian you may decide that this person will also be the guardian of your estate, and therefore would handle the child’s financial matters as well. You may also choose to have a different person handle the financial responsibilities. This can be a solution for parents who want to involve someone from each side of the family. It is also advisable to have an alternate person named in both of these appointments in case your first choices are not able to accept the obligation at the time.
When you make your decision about these appointments, it is important to ask the person or persons if they will accept these responsibilities. It is wise to give people some time to consider your request, and to ensure that they fully understand the breadth of your request. Be sure that your prospective guardians have an opportunity to discuss with you your wishes and preferences about the care of your child.
Finally, remember that this careful planning, and choosing of a guardian needs to be recorded in a legally executed will. Having your will written up by a lawyer is not as costly as you may think. Most lawyers offer this service for a reasonable price. Once you have finished this crucially important responsibility of parenthood, you can rest assured that you and your child’s other parent have done everything possible to ensure that your child will be cared for by someone you have carefully chosen if you were both to die.
NOTE: This article is intended to provide general information on the importance of having a legally appointed guardian. For more information and specific advice please consult a lawyer.
Susan Miller R.N. BScN is a Perinatal Educator and Certified Breastfeeding Counsellor. She works with prenatal and post-natal families in the Greater Victoria area and is the proud grandmother of Meredith born July 2008.