Welcoming a child to the world is a truly joyful moment, and at that moment, the very last thing that you want to be thinking about is contingencies if the unexpected and tragic should happen. And yet, it’s important to do, because freak accidents and tragic events occur, and the last thing you want is for your child to face an uncertain future.
If both yourself and your spouse should pass, without leaving specific and legally signed documents that outline your instructions, then close relatives with “sufficient interest” (grandparents, aunts or uncles) can apply for guardianship of the children. This is often a stressful and combatative process that is resolved in family court and the findings might not be in accordance with who you would have wished for – especially if you wanted guardianship to go to someone that the family courts would consider of a much lower priority.
In addition, if you haven’t got a formal last will and testament, then the state will also distribute your assets according to pre-determined formulas. Your children will be high on the priority list as beneficiaries, but you won’t get to decide how those assets are divided.
For these reasons, you should make sure that you’ve organised a last will and testament as early as possible, and that it includes guardianship of any children that have yet to turn 18 years old, to protect your children in the event that the unthinkable happens.
What should you consider in determining guardianship?
Deciding who would be the best candidate for guardianship can be difficult, especially if there are multiple people in the family who would be excellent guardians. There are a number of factors to consider that can help make the decision easier, however:
1) Where would the children live? This can be a big one. Most children would prefer to continue to go to the same school, keep the same group of friends and grow up in a familiar area that they’ve always known. Where possible, if there’s a suitable relative or potential guardian nearby, locality is an important consideration.
2) Is the guardian financially capable of looking after the child? At the least, you would want to maintain the home economic climate that the child is growing up with. As harsh as it may sound, children struggle to acclimatise to a lower income household, where many of the things they might take for granted (pocket money, technology) are no longer available to them, and this can cause them additional stress and distress, above and beyond losing their parents.
3) Is the child’s new household going to be culturally compatible? If the guardian will be a family relative, then this is probably not going to be such an issue, but if the guardian has a different religious background or cultural traditions, it can be difficult for the child to adjust. On the other hand, children should be exposed to different cultural backgrounds as a way of learning empathy, so this criteria should not be seen as essential as it might at first.
4) Will the guardian support the child in extra-curricular activities. It’s important that the guardian will understand and appreciate the need for the child to have hobbies and activities outside of school and, if they’re already undertaking them, for those activities to be maintained as the child settles in their new home.
5) Do you have any particular wishes for the child to travel, work or study? Many parents want their children to experience certain parts of the world (for example, see the country of their heritage), to start work at a certain age, or to be able to go to university. Will the prospective guardian be able to facilitate these goals, or what alternatives are there to protect them (for example, when will the guardian allow the child to travel by themselves, or will the guardian contribute to a fund that will cover university fees?
6) What are the health conditions of both child and guardian? Children with special needs are a challenge that not every person would be able to cope with as well as you, and it’s important to respect that a guardian just might not be right for the role. Meanwhile, you need to make sure the guardians are healthy too. While you can’t predict the future, you want to minimise the risk that the child will need yet another guardian before they’ve turned 18.
This is a lot to consider, and the best answer is to have frank and honest conversations with a number of different candidates that hit as many of the criteria as possible. Understand that it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to hit every criteria (after all, the only parent that’s going to be like you is you), but in so far as possible you want to make sure that your child will find a happy, if slightly different, new home with their guardians.