The etiquette of naming guardians for your child

Weddings often are political nightmares, touted as joyous celebrations of unity and lasting harmony. It happens when two families get together, and are both invested in a future outcome. Similarly, the family politics around naming a child’s guardian in your will can be fraught. Here’s why people react so strongly, and how to step around potential conflicts.

Why you need to name a guardian:

You need a plan for your child, if something happens to you. Without a will stating your wishes and giving authority to a named person or individuals, the state decides what happens to your child.

Why emotions can run high in this decision:

Everyone loves your child. That’s the great part of this potential squabble or bruised feelings: it happens because everyone you love and trust also loves and wants to be trusted with your child. Emotions are also intense because you are contemplating something scary and dire: a situation in which your child is left parentless.

In deciding what is best for your child’s future, you can be viewed as making a judgment on people’s fitness to parent. But remember, you are not choosing the “World’s #1 Parent” to step into your place; you are choosing the caregiver who will raise your child closest to the way you would have, who shares your values and priorities.

What is important to consider before naming a guardian:

Only you know your family and friends and what plans to make that will best support your child. However, there are some questions to ask yourself as you make your decision:

  • If something were to happen to me right now, today, who would best be able to step in immediately and provide the care, love and support I want for my child?
  • Is there a way for both the maternal and paternal sides of the family to be involved? What about friends? Who would be best at brokering those relationships?
  • Who would parent most like me? Who shares the values I want instilled in my child?
  • Who does my child know and trust?
  • Does the potential guardian live in the same school district, and near other family? How disrupted would my child’s routines be?

How to make your decision official:

Make sure the chosen one wants the job

First, talk to the person you want to name as the guardian, and make sure they agree to the role. Explain that you feel that right now, they are the best choice based on what your child will need.


Set a timetable for revisiting the decision

Life is fluid, and what you feel is the best decision today might not still stand two years from now. Explain to the potential guardian that you plan to revisit the decision every few years as your child grows, to see if your child’s needs have changed. If there is a strong possibility that you will change the guardianship in a few years time, and you know why, explain it. For example, you may have a sibling whom you expect in five years time will be married, settled, and establishing a household much like your own, and you think you would want to name them as the guardian, but they are not yet ready for that role.


Get your paperwork in order

As soon as you’ve made your decision, work with an attorney to set it to paper.


Build a “team” of supporters for your child

The adults in your family need to know your preferences for your child and how to act on your behalf. Don’t make a “big announcement” at Thanksgiving dinner, bestowing one person with all the responsibility. Instead, have individual conversations with key adults to tell them how you would like them to be involved in your child’s life if something happens to you, as part of a team of adult supporters. That will help them understand your needs, and reduce the tension and jealousy of not being chosen for the ‘big’ role—they’ve been chosen to help guide your child in the way that will help the child the most.

For example, you can say, “I’ve been getting my legal papers in order for Timmy, just in case. I think if anything were to happen to me, it would be really difficult for him. I would want to see the adults in his life band together for him. Since you’re one of the most important people in his life, I want you to know where my will is, what it says, and how I hope you would help if Timmy needs you. My brother has guardianship, according to the papers, and his aunt on the other side of the family has responsibility for the estate and finances. That means that both families will need to be involved and work together on Timmy’s behalf. I have a special request for your involvement, though. You have made really good choices in your own life in your education; I’m hoping you would take a special interest in helping Timmy get through school. Can you put my mind at ease and let me know that you’ll be part of a team that helps him if he needs it?”


Handle any jealousy or disagreement with gentleness and humor

Taking the team approach should diffuse tension. But if it doesn’t, have a quiet conversation with the person who feels slighted. Remind them that you’re not planning on kicking this plan into gear by dying any time soon. If the person hotly opposes your choice of guardian, let them know that you don’t view parenting as a “best choice” proposition—it is a series of decisions that shapes your child in your own special way. Ask for their support, and if you don’t get it, feel secure in the fact that you’ve made the right choice by limiting the involvement of someone who can’t get past jealousy or anger for the sake of a child.


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