I know that choosing a guardian is a difficult decision. Think about it - wouldn't you rather decide who will raise and love your children if you are no longer around. Otherwise, a judge decides who would be the best person(s) to raise your child. I think you know better than a judge who would be the best guardian for your children. A lawyer can help you draft your will to make sure your kids will have the guardians you want for them. For example, a trained estate planning lawyer will prepare the right language for making sure your kids only go to a certain couple if that couple is married and lives in California and if those conditions are not met, you will have another choice, and another choice and maybe another choice for guardians.
If you have investments, a house or a business, you will want to consider having an attorney set up a trust for you to avoid estate taxes and probate.
Appoint Short Term Guardians for Your Child
Every parent should have clear instructions on who would be acceptable as a short term guardian for your child. This means someone who is local and can immediately come to take care of your child. Some examples of good short term guardians are close friends who live near by or trusted neighbors. Your long term guardians may be relatives from the East Coast while you live on the West Coast. If something happened to you and your spouse and you could not be located or you are both unconscious, the police could take your children and they could be placed into foster care. It may sound preposterous but the authorities have no choice if you leave no clear directions on who has authority to care for your children temporarily while their long-term guardians are located and arrive.
Sign a Medical Authorization for Your Child
If you do not have a signed medical treatment authorization for your child and you are not with your child, a hospital cannot treat your child until they get your permission. Make sure to make copies of the authorization and pack it in your child's diaper bag or backpack and leave a copy for any caregivers. Also include a copy of the child's medical insurance card and your Short Term Guardian Appointment.
Prepare for Your Child's Financial Future
If you are no longer around, you still need to provide for your child financially. Many parents do this through purchasing life insurance. It is not your appointed guardian's job to provide for all of your child's financial needs. And you do not want to choose a guardian based on their ability to financially support your children - you want a guardian who will love and raise your child as close to the way you would.
Appoint a Financial Guardian for Your Child
You will also need to appoint the executor of the will or the trustee of a trust - what I call the "financial guardian." This person will be in charge of the finances. I usually recommend that you choose a different person for that role in your children's lives. The person or couple that may be the best guardians may not be the best in making financial decisions. Also, you will avoid any potential conflict of interest. Another role for this financial guardian is to manage your child's money (or hire the right person to manage the money), even when your child is 18 or older. You may not want your child to inherit a large sum of money at age 18. If you do not have a detailed will or a trust in place, that is exactly what could happen.
Prepare for Your Child's Emotional Future
Leave your intended guardians notes about how you would like your child raised. Topics to address may include religion, academics, sports, family history, culture and more. You may also want to write a few notes for your child to open in the future. These can be general notes or notes related to a specific event. As an example, you could write notes about coming of age, going to college, getting married and having a child. These notes can be set aside and brought out at these milestone events. The notes will be fun to read together with your children at these stages of life, but if you are not around they will bring comfort to your child knowing that you are there with them in spirit. Also, do not forget to leave the passwords for your photo accounts (flickr, snapfish, etc.) since those pictures will be priceless if you are no longer around.
Additional resources provided by the author
The California Bar has some wonderful and free consumer pamphlets on estate planning in the consumers section.
Although this legal guide may provide information concerning potential legal issues, it is not a substitute for legal advice from qualified counsel. You should consult an attorney for individual advice regarding your own situation. Your use of this legal guide does not create any attorney-client relationship between you and Olenicoff & Zinser, PC.