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Choosing a Guardian

I remember the morning of September 11 vividly. I could barely manage to drag my huge body out of bed at 6:00 a.m. I was six weeks away from delivering our son and felt like a beached whale. The phone kept ringing and my husband finally answered it; it was his best friend calling to tell him to turn on the TV. I remember stroking my immense belly as tears slowly fell down my face, while watching, dumbfounded, as smoke plumed from the World Trade Center. I’m sure everyone will remember this day and the days that followed. My heart went out to all the children who lost mothers and fathers. It was during the weeks following 9/11, after reading story after story about the children whose lives were instantly shattered, that my husband and I suddenly began to think of life insurance with some urgency. When William was born, we realized we needed to choose a legal guardian as well.

A legal guardian is someone you choose to raise your child in the case you and your partner die. It’s not an easy task to think about. We did finally pick a couple for this, but because of moving and illness and other stresses, including moving countries, we actually did not write up a will. This is horrible to admit, isn’t it? We know we’re negligent, but now we’re uncertain of who to choose as we now live thousands of miles away from that couple and the move would be especially hard on him.

Experts say we are hardly alone in our hesitancy, but it can result in negligence. Even though the likelihood of both parents dying is small, no one wants the guardian choice to be in limbo.

Paula Allison of Allison Consulting, an estate planning law firm based in Sacramento, California, says, “No one will raise your kids as well as you. Deal with that reality. What you want is the best among your choices. And the choices may not be ideal, but they are better than no choice. It’s better for you to choose than to allow family members to fight it out or have the court appoint someone.”

To help in your decision, you may want to make a list of all your possible candidates and discuss the pros and cons with your partner. Here are some questions that may help you assess each candidate: * Whose parenting style, values, and religious beliefs most closely match your own? * Who is most able, emotionally and physically, to take care of your child/children? (If you have life insurance and a trust, most likely the guardian will be given financial means to assist in raising your children.) * Who does your child feel comfortable with already? * Will your child have to move far away, and will this pose any problems? * Does the person you’re considering have other children? If so, how do the children get along? * Does the person have enough time and energy to devote to your child? While some experts advise discussing the possibility of guardianship with each potential candidate before making your decision, you don’t have to. For me, I know this would be especially hard since I’m fairly sure that more than one friend or family member would like to have the job. If this sounds familiar, consider discussing your options privately and when you make your decision, just tell the person you have chosen to make sure she/he agrees. This person will be named in your will or living trust. And, luckily, these documents aren’t set in stone. “Keep in mind, you can always change your plan. Name the best person now, and in five years, you may have met a couple with similar nurturing skills or your relatives may have matured into better parents. Your choice is not permanent. Every decision we make today can only be based on the best of our knowledge today. If tomorrow changes, then you can change your plan,” says Paula.

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