by Mark Gavagan
If my wife Kimberly and I were to both die in an accident tonight, who would take care of our children? It’s a terrible thought, but if we don’t think about it and write our choices into a will or similar legal document, the laws of our state will decide for us.
Even though the odds are it will never take effect, this can be one of the most personal and critical decisions a parent makes. For some it’s clear-cut and easy. For others it may take days or even weeks of painstaking deliberation. Either way, it’s important to be very selective.
While I believe there is no higher compliment than asking someone to raise our children in the event of our death, it’s an enormous responsibility. Reactions from prospective guardians may be surprising, possibly ranging from wholehearted acceptance to outright refusal.
Consider the ideas below as you evaluate guardian candidates. Remember, the goal is to choose guardians who will best serve your children’s interests (as opposed to those who most want or expect the job). Ideally, they would be the same people, but that’s not always the case.
People & Situations You Must Avoid Automatically eliminate any guardian candidate from consideration if you know or have the intuition (see sidebar below) that they or any member or otherwise trusted visitor of their household (including minors) is a sexual predator, an angry, violent or psychological abuser, a drug addict, or suffers from any dangerous mental illness.
Gavin de Becker, in his outstanding book, “Protecting the Gift – Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane),” insists that parents must be actively on-guard about the horrible possibility that a well-liked neighbor, friend of the family, or even someone in the family, may be a sexual predator of children. He states “…nearly 90 percent of sexual abuse is committed by someone the children know, not by strangers … one in three girls and one in six boys will have sexual contact with an adult, so somebody must be responsible.” He adds “…the most common age at which sexual abuse begins is three.”
The good news is that nothing else in this article is especially disturbing to think about – important stuff, but not horrible stuff.
Overwhelmed By The Added Responsibility? It’s possible that one or more of your guardian candidate households that is otherwise terrific, would be overwhelmed by the addition of your kids. This doesn’t mean tough moments or days here and there – every household experiences some ebb and flow of stress, tiredness and over-scheduling. The concern is a persistent depletion of all parental resources – being “stretched too thin” on an ongoing basis.
If you look carefully, you’ll probably recognize (and eliminate) a guardian candidate’s household already in that state. What you need to do is go a step further and try to forecast how well a household that otherwise runs fine would adapt if your kids were added to it on a long-term basis. These concerns might be addressed by hiring a cleaning service, mother’s helper, after-school program or other provider to offset some of the added burden.
Values and Lifestyle Whether religious-based or otherwise, the core values guardian candidates embody should weigh heavily on your decision.
Principles such as integrity, honesty, and respect for others, as well as lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, smoking, and safe driving, are largely learned from the behavior of the people in your children’s lives.
“Behavior” of guardian candidates is emphasized because kids are infinitely more affected by what they see and experience than what they hear.
For example, the manner in which a guardian candidate treats the wait staff at a restaurant will have far more influence than a mantra to “show respect for other people.”
Parenting Philosophies What is each guardian candidate’s approach to parenting? Are the household rules clear, reasonable and consistently enforced? What about discipline and punishment – is spanking ever appropriate?
When you speak with your finalist guardian candidates (next article in this series), you can pose a wide range of scenarios and discuss how they would handle them. For example: “How would you respond if you were Mark’s guardian and at age 14 he was suspended from school for smoking cigarettes?”
Experience While not cause for automatic disqualification, there are disadvantages to candidates who have never themselves been parents. There is no track record for you to evaluate and they lack the benefits of day-to-day parenting experience (of course every first-time parent is similarly inexperienced and must rely on instincts and outside advice).
Relationships Within the Household Serious marital or other relationship problems between members of a guardian candidate’s household should be a red flag. Communication and dynamics within the home are key contributors to how children feel about themselves, how they expect to be treated, and how they learn to treat others.
Outlook on Careers and Education Guardian candidates’ experiences and attitudes regarding vocation and education can have a substantial impact upon your children’s academic performance and life choices. For example, some families favor higher education, while others gravitate toward trades such as plumbing or carpentry.
Financial Concerns These fall under three categories: (1) guardian candidates’ financial resources for raising your children; (2) assets you leave for your children; and (3) the personal finance education and philosophies guardian candidates embody and would be engrained in your children. While the first two are beyond the scope of this article (see other articles in this series about these topics), it’s worth noting that guardians must be able to afford the added expenses of raising your children, whether through their own resources or assets you leave them, such as life insurance benefits.
The third category, the personal finance education and philosophies that would be passed-on to your children, is important in its own right, as well as a possible indicator of other underlying values.
Your children will learn a great deal from their guardians about how to live their financial lives, especially by the example your guardians set in their own everyday lives. Will your children (and their children) learn to create budgets and save part of their income, or will they live beyond their means, struggling to make minimum payments on huge credit balances?
Early lessons in life about investing, risk versus reward, compounding interest, diversification, delayed gratification, smart consumer strategies, quality being (usually) cheaper in the long run, and so on, can be extremely valuable.
Location, Location, Location Where do your guardian prospects live now and where might they go? Is there a strong family or other connection to another part of the world or the likelihood of a cross-country job transfer? Consider elements of your guardian prospects’ community overall, including school system, crime, personal safety, and proximity to other friends and family. Does the physical space they currently live in allow children and is it suitable to reasonably accommodate your kids? If not, discuss options with your guardian candidates, such as their willingness to move or renovate their existing home if necessary (see other articles in this series for more on these topics).
Also, consider how safe and comfortable your kids would be with any pets in the households of your guardian candidates. Even the sweetest, most gentle pit bull in the world is still a pit bull and worth thinking carefully about.
Special Needs Make sure your guardian candidates have a thorough understanding of any condition in your kids that falls under this category. Be up front about worst-case scenarios and the likelihood they’ll come about.
Since guardians must be able to immediately step into your shoes and manage all aspects of your children’s care, develop and maintain detailed health records and instructions, including contact information for all health professionals. Your guardians must be able to quickly access and understand this material.
Your Kids’ Thoughts While it would probably be unsettling for any child to think about his or her parents dying, children’s insights can be surprisingly valuable. Whether or not discussing the topic with them is appropriate depends on your judgement about their maturity.
If you do decide to talk with your children, be sure they know that you are genuinely interested in their opinions, but the ultimate decision lies with you.
Since it might not be easy for kids to voice their concerns, it’s important that you take time to listen closely in an environment without distractions. Make sure to ask open-ended questions and “peel the onion” with follow-ups. Also, consider offering assurance that anything they say about anyone in this discussion is private and will not be conveyed to any guardian prospect.
If your kids don’t raise any red flags about the guardian prospects you have in mind, that’s a sign you’re on the right track.
Creative Solutions As you evaluate guardian candidates, seek out creative ways to address your concerns, especially if one or two issues are keeping you from selecting an otherwise terrific candidate.
For example, in the situation that you are very religious and your foremost candidate is not, perhaps they would commit to keeping your religion an important part of your children’s lives by observing holidays and traditions, transporting your kids to classes and services, and facilitating relationships with religious mentors.
Invest Time With Your Finalists Just as first dates and job interviews rarely reveal the full extent of a person’s true nature, even dear friends and family members can be radically different as circumstances and settings change. For example, someone you know to be warm and docile may be an entirely different animal when driving in traffic or managing their own kids solo for an entire weekend.
The more time you and your family spend with everyone in your guardian candidates’ households, in a wide variety of situations, the more insight you’ll have.
Background Check Consider a thorough background check by a professional investigative service for every member of your finalists’ households. While some may find this offensive, wouldn’t you want to know if a guardian candidate who might one day be driving your children had a DUI conviction and several speeding tickets? How about if a step-son or father-in-law was charged with sexually abusing children?
A background check might include confirmation of employment, education and legal status in the country, criminal and incarceration history, driving records, financial information such as credit scores, civil judgments, liens or bankruptcy, complaints, investigations, and disciplinary actions from professional and/or licensing trade groups.
Periodic Reviews Revisit this decision every year or two, especially if your family or your guardians experience life-changing events, such as divorce or major illness.
In closing, remember that even though this article advocates thoroughly researching and carefully evaluating possible guardians for your children, the goal isn’t perfection. The goal is to choose the best people for the job – guardians who will enthusiastically fulfill every parenting responsibility in your absence, provide a safe and healthy environment, embody values you agree with, and love and cherish your kids as if you were still there.
ANYONE IS WELCOME TO REPUBLISH THIS ARTICLE IN FULL WITH THE ENTIRE FOLLOWING ATTRIBUTION: Reprinted with permission granted by the author, Mark Gavagan. Originally posted on the blog for OrganizeMyAffairs.com which is located at http://organizemyaffairs.com/blog/