Who’s the Right (Legal) Guardian for Your Baby?

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When I was pregnant with my son, so many of those infamous, big parenting decisions kept me up at night: Should I breastfeed? Work full-time? Try a “flex schedule” like some of my other lawyer friends? Should we stay in the city? Buy a house in the ‘burbs?

And while all of these are important, life-defining questions, the one that had me staring at the ceiling for hours on end was “Who should we choose to be our baby’s legal guardian?”

Why is making a decision so important?

As an estate-planning consultant, you’d think I’d have that one in the bag. After all, I know just how crucial the decision is: without a guardian, you are literally leaving your child’s future up to chance. Here’s why: a will is the legal document that appoints the person you want to raise your child if something happens to you and your partner. Without one – a judge you’ve never met, (let me say that again: a judge you’ve never met) – gets to pick the best person to raise your baby. And trust me: A random stranger’s definition of “best” can be very different from yours.  

Even worse, while your child’s case works its way through the court system, he or she could be placed in foster care or experience months at the center of a legal battle. Think psychologists, social workers and lawyers – before moving on to a stable home environment. So, hard as it is to face the thought of ever leaving your child behind, I am here to tell you that a good parent picks a legal guardian for their child – no matter what. 

What if I can’t find the perfect person?

Here’s the bad news, there is no perfect match. Nobody is going to parent exactly like you, and parents often put off writing their will as they search (and search) for that “ideal guardian.” But that’s also good news, because it means you that don’t have to feel pressured to find your “replacement” and you shouldn’t over-think the decision. You are simply picking the friend or relative who will make the best guardian from your available options, so give yourself a deadline and stick to it. At the end of the day, someone is always better than no one.

What makes someone a good fit for my family?

Well, I believe it all comes down to your core parenting values. And while that sounds a little intense, I’m actually talking about some pretty practical, daily stuff. For example, is it important to you that your child to be raised a certain religion? Grow up in a certain part of the country or attend certain schools? Would you like your child to be raised with certain expectations about education or money or learn a certain work ethic? Are you someone who believes in strict discipline or takes more of a loosey-goosy approach about certain parenting hot buttons? Remember: there are no right or wrong answers here, and you’ll have to prioritize. Again, no one will fit all of your criteria to a T. But it’s important to make a list of your core values so you can try to match someone to as many as possible.

What if I change my mind?

I advise every client to revisit her will and the choice she made for her child’s guardian every few years. It’s absolutely normal to drift apart from friends, have issues with relatives, or realize that the person who makes the best guardian for a baby isn’t necessarily the best choice for a teenager. A will is what lawyers call a “living document,” meaning you can always change it (and your mind) whenever you’d like.

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