If you and your spouse pass away, then you will need someone — a guardian — to take care of your minor children. Writing a last will and testament is one way to help ensure your child’s future lies in the hands of the right person. But how do you decide who the guardian should be? Choosing a guardian for a minor is an important and tough decision. Many people may opt for a parent or a close friend, but there are some reasons why you may not want to.
Name at least a two guardians in your will in case in case one of them is unable to take on the role
Guardianship ends when the minor child becomes a legal adult (reaches the age of the majority) and is capable of making decisions by themselves
You can name separate guardians — for your child’s physical well-being and another for their finances — but it isn’t necessary
Who can be a guardian
Most states have their own set of legal requirements as to who can become a guardian. The most common qualifications are:
The guardian must be at least 18 years old and mentally competent.
The guardian shouldn’t be currently incarcerated.
The guardian shouldn’t have a criminal history, although some states consider certain crimes more disqualifying than others.
If you share custody of the child with someone else, like the child's other parent, they may have priority to become guardian when you pass away, and you can voice any objections to a guardian in your will. While the court isn’t obligated to follow what you say, they’ll take your preferences and desires into account when making a decision.
What to look for in a guardian
The legal guardian takes on parental responsibilities, which include providing housing, clothing, and food, arranging the child’s education, and authorizing medical care. Everyone has different priorities when it comes to raising a child and caring for a dependent, so you might think about what qualities you would want in a prospective guardian and take into account any of the following:
Parenting style and family dynamic
Many people want to pick a guardian who has a similar parenting style or a family dynamic that echoes their own. You might also want to keep conscious of how your kids might interact with the guardians' children if they have any. Some people may prefer a guardian who has no children, while others may want someone with parenting experience, and some people may not have issues either way. If the guardian is married, then you might also think about the stability of their relationship, and what might happen if they got divorced.
Some parents might look for a guardian with similar religious, moral, or even political values, including those surrounding gender identity. If it’s important to you, then it should be important to the potential guardian, and you’ll want to know whoever’s taking care of your kids will have the child’s interests (and yours) in mind.
Location and age
Don’t forget more practical concerns, like the guardian’s age or health status and location. The guardian should have the physical capacity to care for your children, which is one reason you may think twice before naming the child's grandparents.
If you choose a guardian who lives in a different state, they may need to relocate to where your child lives — or vice versa (some states have rules regarding whether minors can travel outside of the state). Keep this in mind if you have specific preferences about where you want your child to grow up or what school you want them to attend.
Even if you set aside an inheritance for your child, you want to choose a guardian who is financially secure. This way you can feel confident knowing that the guardian can manage the children’s accounts.
If you want, you can even name another person — a fiduciary called an estate guardian or conservator — to handle your child’s finances separately. This may not be necessary if you’ve left your children’s inheritance in a trust, which will be managed separately by someone you appoint called the trustee.
Learn more about how to set up a trust for a minor child.
After you pick a guardian
Let them know. It’s a good idea to discuss your plans with the person you want to appoint as guardian. Becoming a legal care-taker of someone else’s children is a full-time responsibility, and they may want to discuss it with you.
Detail your preferences. You can detail clear instructions regarding your child’s upbringing to make sure they’re raised how you want, and so the guardian knows what’s important.
Name an alternate guardian. The appointed guardian isn't obligated to take on the role, so you should name a backup, or successor guardian, in case they decline.
Update your choices. Wills should be periodically updated, especially as your life circumstances change. You can use this as a chance to appoint a different guardian if they’ve passed away, you’ve had a falling out, or you’ve just found someone else more suitable for the role. (If you write a new will, make sure you have it properly witnessed and executed.)