If you have any children under the age of 18, it is important that you at least have a will, including provisions designating who you would want to be the guardian(s) of your children, should anything happen to you. Legal guardianship provisions for minor children are an important part of estate planning.
The basics of the last will and testament
A last will and testament is basically used to make dispositions of your property at the time of your death. Another purpose of a will is to appoint someone to manage your estate and to appoint someone as guardian of your minor children. Without a will, your property will be distributed to your family following the laws of intestate succession in your state. Your closest relatives usually receive equal shares depending on the law's pre-determined priority system.
Establishing legal guardianship of minors with your will
When one spouse or parent dies, the surviving spouse or parent will automatically be the child's legal guardian unless that person's parental rights have already been terminated. Should both parents die at the same time, or nearly the same time, a guardian named in a will would become responsible for the child's care absent a court's determination that it is not in the child's best interest to have legal guardianship awarded to the person you designated. The presumption under the law is that the person you designate as your desired guardian of your minor children is the most appropriate choice.
Be sure to consider both present and future circumstances
When you are considering who should be named as legal guardian for your children, take into consideration the age, health and location of the potential individuals. You must also recognize that these factors will probably change in the future. For this reason, it is a good idea to select both primary and secondary guardians, should there be anything preventing your primary guardians from serving in that role. These designations should be reviewed at least every 2 years.
Make sure the legal guardians will have everything they need
In order to properly care for your children after you are gone your guardians will need to have access to financial assets, as well. Generally, it is most advantageous to accomplish this through the creation of a revocable living trust that is funded while you are alive. Using this technique your assets avoid the probate process upon your death and the person you designate as the successor trustee under the trust has access to the financial assets and the authority to make distributions to or for the benefit of your minor children without the probate court's involvement. The successor trustee may be the person you designate as your guardian, or it could be someone else if you feel someone other than the guardian is best suited to manage the financial decision-making. This can also be established through a testamentary trust created under a will, but then the assets would need to go through probate and the court will retain ongoing jurisdiction over the trust. The costs associated with administering a testamentary trust are generally much higher than those involved with the administration of a living trust after your death.
What happens if you do not nominate a guardian?
If you do not include guardianship provisions in your will, or establish a trust, the appointment of a legal guardian will be made by the probate court. Although it is the judge's responsibility to ensure the best interests of the child are met, the decision may not coincide with your own wishes. That is why being proactive and creating an estate plan is the best solution for you and your family.
If you have questions regarding legal guardianship, or any other estate planning needs, please contact Anderson, Dorn & Rader, Ltd., either online or by calling us at (775) 823-9455.