In honor of my own godson’s birthday, today I want to share important information about the difference between a godparent and a legal guardian when it comes to estate planning.
I get this question a lot: “We named godparents for our child, so wouldn’t they be the guardians if something happened to us?”
A godparent is someone who the parents have chosen to sponsor their child into the church and act as a spiritual guide to the child. The godparent takes part in the baptism and, since the child is unable to answer the questions asked of him during the ceremony, the godparent answers on his behalf.
Aside from the spiritual responsibility, the expectations of godparents vary from culture to culture and from family to family. A godparent could play anything from an honorary role to an integral part of the child’s upbringing. In general, a godparent’s role is to stay connected with the child in some manner throughout life. It’s also usually expected that the godparent remembers their godchild on birthdays and important holidays.
Prior to modern guardianship laws, those who were named as godparents would also assume the responsibility of raising the children if the parents were unable. This wasn’t a legal standard, however, but rather a tradition, which some people (mistakenly) still believe to be.
A godparent is not a substitute for naming a guardian who would be legally designated to raise and care for your child in your absence.
As a parent, this is one of the most important decisions you make to ensure that your child will be taken care of no matter what.
But sometimes naming a guardian feels like an overwhelming decision. Just the thought that you might not be around to raise your child is very emotional for most parents. If you are having difficulty choosing a guardian, or if you and your partner can’t agree on the guardian, try the following exercise:
If you are doing this exercise with your partner, make sure you each do it independently before comparing.
Step 1: Make a list of everyone you would trust to care for your children.
Relatives are usually good candidates, but you can also name trusted friends. There is no legal requirement that a guardian be related to the child. We’ll call this List A.
Step 2: Make a list of all of the things that are important to you as a parent.
For example, is important that your choice of guardian have a strong relationship with your child? Do they love your child? Are they healthy and capable? Do they have children of their own? What is their parenting style? Will they respect your educational values? How about your spiritual values? This is List B.
Step 3: Think beyond financial capabilities.
It is not the guardian’s responsibility to provide for your child. With proper estate planning for dependent children, you as the parent can provide for your child so that there is enough money to ensure their well-being. Furthermore, the person you name as guardian does not have to be the same person who manages the child’s inheritance. So keep money off List B, and keep List B focused on parenting values.
Step 4: Review List B and rank your parenting values in order of importance.
Step 5: Compare List A and List B, and determine which of your choices matches closest with your values.
Choose more than one person to name as guardian, as it’s crucial to name a backup up in case your first choice is unavailable or unable to act.
Step 6: Sit down with your partner and compare your choices.
You might find that you and your partner still can’t agree on a guardian, but at least you will be able to articulate objective reasons for your choices. The purpose of the exercise is to negate some of the emotion so that you and your partner can have a meaningful conversation without arguing over petty family matters.
Step 7: Talk to your chosen guardian before signing your documents.
Being a guardian is a huge responsibility, so make sure the people you’ve chosen agree and are ready to be called upon in case the unthinkable ever happens.
After it’s all said and done, you may discover that the godparent is also the best choice for guardian. That is quite possible and not uncommon. But if that’s the case, please make sure you document your choice legally. With your estate planning lawyer, it is important to name guardians in your last will and testament and also in a standalone guardian nomination.
If you are interested in learning more about naming guardians or how to avoid common mistakes parents make when naming guardians (even after working with a lawyer) please contact me about your estate planning needs or attend one of my Children’s Emergency Workshops.
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