Naming a Guardian for Your Child

September 14, 2012
Updated on December 10, 2020

If you have a minor child, it is important to name someone to raise your child (a guardian) in the event that both of your child’s parents pass away before your child becomes an adult. While the likelihood of that actually happening is slim, the consequences of not naming a guardian are great. Providing for your child’s care in this unlikely event is part of being a good parent.

If you do not name a guardian, a judge (who may not know you, your child, or your relatives) will decide who will raise your child without knowing your preference. You cannot assume the judge will automatically appoint your parent or sibling to raise your child; anyone can ask to be considered, and the judge will select the person the judge deems most appropriate.

If you have named a guardian in your will or separate legal document such as a declaration of guardian, the judge will still need to appoint the guardian but will have your preference as guidance. If you are divorced, the judge will usually name the child’s surviving parent as guardian unless it is not in the child’s best interests.

Choosing a Guardian

The person you name as guardian does not have to be a relative, so consider all of your options. As you begin to list and evaluate your candidates, consider the following:

  • A guardian’s parenting style, values, and religious beliefs should be similar to your own. If your candidates have children, observe how they are raising and disciplining them. If they do not have children, find out all you can about how they were raised; people tend to parent how they were parented.
  • How far away from you do they live? Would your child have to move far away from a familiar school, friends, and neighborhood at an emotionally difficult time?
  • How comfortable is your child with your candidates now?
  • How emotionally prepared are your candidates to take on this added responsibility? Someone who is single may resent having to care for someone else’s child. Candidates with a houseful of their own children may not want more around, or conversely, they may welcome the addition.
  • Do they have the time and energy? Your parents may have the time, but consider if they would have the energy to keep up with a toddler or teenager. Someone who works long hours may not initially seem to be the ideal candidate at first, but this candidate may be willing to change his or her priorities if needed.
  • If your candidates have children of their own, would your child fit in or feel lost?
  • Consider your child’s age and that of your candidates. An older guardian may become ill or even die before your child is grown. A younger guardian, especially an adult sibling, may be concentrating on finishing college or starting a career. If your child is older and more mature, you should consider your child’s input in your decision.
  • Is the candidate you select willing to serve? Ask. Do not assume someone will take the job.

The Financial Side

Raising your child should not be a financial burden for the person you select as guardian, and a candidate’s lack of finances should not be the deciding factor in your decision. You will need to provide enough money (from your own assets, from life insurance, or both) to provide for your child the way you want. These funds could then help the guardian buy a larger car or add on to their existing home, if needed.

Consider whether it is appropriate to name someone else to handle the finances. Naming one person to raise the children and handle the money can make things simpler because the guardian would not have to ask someone else for money. However, if the best person to raise your child is not necessarily the best person to handle money, you may select another person to manage your child’s inheritance.

Many parents set up a trust for the child’s inheritance (so the child will not inherit everything at age eighteen) and name someone other than the guardian to be the trustee of the trust. There can be disagreements over expenses (for example, whether the child should go to public or private school), so be sure to name people as guardian and trustee who can work together for the best interests of your child.

Provide a Letter of Instruction

Consider writing a letter to the guardian explaining your expectations and hopes for your child’s upbringing. Include your desires about your child’s education, activities, and religious training. Read and update your letter every year as your child grows and develops interests. You should also discuss these desires with your selected guardian.

Having a Hard Time Making a Decision?

If you are having trouble making a decision, list the pros and cons for each candidate. If you and your child’s other parent are having trouble coming to an agreement, try making your own separate lists of top candidates and look for some common ground. Be sure to name at least one alternate in case your first choice becomes unable to serve.

Keep in mind that the person you select as guardian will probably not raise your child. The odds are that at least one parent will survive until your child is grown. You are simply being a good parent by planning ahead for an unlikely, but possible, situation. Next, realize that no one but you will be the perfect parent for your child, so you are probably going to have to make some compromises in some areas. Also, you can change your mind. In fact, you should review and change the guardian as your child grows and if the guardian’s situation changes.

Do not wait too long. Remember, if you do not name someone to raise your child and the unlikely does happen, a court will decide who will raise your child without your input.