When naming a legal guardian for their child in their wills I’ve known parents who go so far as to not even tell the person they’ve chosen to be legal guardian for their child that they’ve been named! The main reason for wanting to keep it a secret is to not hurt feelings.
Parenting Magazine refers to this as “the politics of picking a guardian”. There are several categories of people whose feelings could be hurt:
runners-up (those selected as back-ups to your first choice);
the legal guardian themselves.
Why the last category? I’ll talk more about this below but often times as your child grows older and as circumstances in the life of your guardian change, you may feel like it’s no longer a fit and need to update your choice.
Another reason I’ve heard for keeping it a secret from everyone is that if you tell your guardian – or even your child – others in the family are bound to find out one way or the other and then you’re back to hurt feelings.
What to do? I advise my clients that you must at least tell the person you’ve chosen.
Why? For the wellbeing of your child.
We have a saying in our family about secrets: “No secrets – let the sunlight touch it“.
Most parents also want to express to the guardian verbally, if not in writing, their wishes regarding the disciplinary, religious, educational, and belief system aspects of their child’s upbringing. (This is a good idea but understand these wishes are not legally enforceable.)
I think we can all appreciate that if you tell the person you’ve chosen, there is a high likelihood other candidates will find out. You have to ask yourself, do you want those who didn’t make the cut to find out from you or through the grapevine?
There’s also a legal consideration. While judges almost invariably appoint those you name in your will as your child’s legal guardian, they are not required by law to do so.
How can this be so? What if at the time of your death the person you chose is incarcerated? An addict? Mentally unstable? Transient? A judge can override your will in these situations if it is in the best interests of the child.
I bring this up so you will know that your guardian designations can be challenged in court by other family members. Having tried cases for 10 years, my experience is that most legal conflicts can be avoided when there is clear communication between the parties – especially when it is uncomfortable.
If you made it clear to all interested parties during your lifetime who your choice is, while some may have hurt feelings initially, they usually quickly get over it. Your guardian designation is less likely to be challenged in court if there is no surprise when your will is read.
Parenting Magazine has some advice that might help smooth ruffled feathers: “Try pinning the decision on neutral criteria, maybe people’s parenting experience, [location], or the size of their existing families.”
Remember, it’s not about you, your parents or siblings. It’s about your child.