A few years ago the ABC sitcom Black-ish did something you hardly ever see – they aired an episode that centered on estate planning! Specifically, the decision about who to name as potential guardian for your minor children.
Naming a potential guardian for your minor children is one of many tasks that are part of preparing an estate plan, along with writing a will and creating a durable power of attorney. It is also often one of the more difficult and emotional tasks that couples face.
The show did a pretty good job of following the thought process of a typical couple as they work toward a decision about guardians for their children – starting with the reason they went down that road in the first place.
It happened during family movie night. The Johnson’s and their four children were discussing what movie to watch, with Lion King being one of the options. The youngest was inadvertently told that Simba’s father dies, but is reassured that Simba gets to go live with a warthog or a meerkat or something, and so everything is just fine. The little boy then asks who his warthog would be if the parents die.
Mom and Dad then leave the room to freak out in the kitchen about the possibility of their own mortality showing up, and decide that they need to figure out who will raise their children if something happens. Mom wants to embody the spirit of Hakuna Matata from the movie, by which she means don’t worry about it, let the fates decide. Dad convinces her that’s not the best approach – although many couples do indeed handle the question that way.
Family or Friends?
They start by both assuming it would be someone from their own side of the family, and progress to cancelling out each other’s mother’s, going through each of their siblings and ruling them out for both good and bad reasons – and a couple siblings who rule themselves out.
They then go down their list of friends, discussing lifestyles and financial means of each. It was interesting, and not unusual, that they considered financial means more seriously when discussing friends than family. People tend to assume that family can be leaned on no matter the circumstances, but placing too high of a burden on a friend is uncomfortable. Ultimately, none of their friends seems quite right.
They then go back to discussing their own mothers. Each think their own mother would be best, discussing physical location, familiarity with the kids, parenting style, and general quirks. They decide that they should talk to the moms directly about this, and so they set up a discussion about the matter with them. That attempt ends after both the moms’ seem to showcase all the reasons they should not be picked!
Denial and Acceptance
At a loss for a good choice, the parents decide the thing to do is to stay very healthy and not die while the kids are young. They begin drinking healthy smoothies and the need to take separate airplanes when they travel. They then get very emotional thinking about the possibility of dying before their children are grown. Parents of children with special needs often start the process with the emptional reaction. It is this step where the majority of Parker Counsel’s clients diverge in their discussions. While most families need to think about caretakers for their children only until the child turns 18, parents of children with special needs typically need to think about caretakers for their children until the end of their child’s life, usually long after the death of the parent.
After their flirtation with denial and grief, they begin to settle on choosing the grandmother that already lives close by and is involved with the children on a near daily basis as the best choice. It is at this point that their oldest daughter comes to them and they realize something that is especially critical for families of children with special needs.
It’s not all or nothing
The daughter points out that she is already 17, and she talks about all the ways in which she is already caring for her younger siblings. She makes a case for naming her as guardian. While she clearly doesn’t fully understand the intensity of being full guardian of the children, the parents realize that the children already have a large and useful community of caregivers. Even though many of them would be good only at a piece of the caretaking, by keeping all of them as part of the support system, the children would have a wonderful, safe, and loving group of caretakers to support them into adulthood. By choosing one person to take the legal responsibility, but incorporating the entire group into an informal support system, the children will be well cared for.
Ultimately, this is how most guardianship decisions turn out. In some families, the choice of guardian is obvious and clear cut. But in families where it is not, the importance of recognizing the value of an informal support system to aid the legal guardian makes the difference in parents’ ability to make this very emotional decision.
In the years 2015 – 2019 its estimated that approximately 3% of children under the age of 18 lost a parent to death. (The JAG Institute, founded by former NFL player Brian Griese and Dr. Brooke Griese)
For a brief idea of things that can go wrong when naming guardians, check out our discussion of Harry Potter’s childhood.
Parker Counsel Legal Services helps clients in Texas, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Hampshire prepare estate plans for their individual circumstances. Find out how we can help you – schedule a short phone call, email us at email@example.com or call 833-733-2668