Children are a family’s greatest treasure. Think of all the precautions taken to safeguard minor children – from the first purchase of an infant car seat to swimming lessons and even driving instruction. Yet, most parents leave their children completely unprotected from one of life’s most crushing blows – being orphaned upon the loss or disability of their parents.
While every parent expects to rear their minor children to adulthood, did you ever stop and think that your next goodbye might be your last? Life can throw any of us an unexpected curve ball in the form of a fatal injury or illness. If you are not prepared for that curve ball, then how much less prepared will your minor children be? Who would you legally appoint to serve as their back-up parents to fulfill your parental responsibilities? Your answer, in large part, may depend on how family is defined for you. Is yours a single parent family, a blended family, or a traditional family?
Single Parent Families
If you are a single parent, then the surviving biological parent automatically remains the natural guardian, absent proof of unfitness. Without any other legal arrangements, that surviving parent will also likely manage the inheritance you leave behind. Many single parents would not choose the other parent as the one to manage their child’s inheritance.
Upon reaching the age of majority for an inheritance under applicable state law (typically age 18), your children will receive whatever is left of their inheritance without guidance or restriction. Most parents would not want an 18-year-old to suddenly have wealth fall into their lap without some guidance. If both you and the other parent are deceased, what happens? In that instance, without proper legal plans in place, a judge will appoint a guardian for your minor children and see that the inheritance is distributed outright at age of majority.
Is yours a blended family? If so, you are in good company. According to recent statistics, there are more blended families today than traditional families. When the minor children in the household may be yours, mine or ours, how do you select the back-up parents, beyond the biological parents – especially when the children consider themselves to be one family? Should the minor children remain together if possible? If not, then with whom should they be placed and should legal arrangements be made to facilitate their ongoing contact? What should occur if the survivor remarries again? [Note: This is to say nothing of the division, management and distribution of the blended family assets.]
If yours is a traditional, nuclear family, then the whole matter seems rather simple, doesn’t it? The surviving parent remains the natural guardian. However, what if both parents are deceased? What if the survivor remarries? Will your children be reared by their paternal or their maternal side of the family? That is when things can get complicated. In our mobile society, do both sides of the family even know each other, let alone get along? Given the choice, would you rather your children be reared by close friends who share your values and lifestyle?
As you can see, every family situation is different. Nevertheless, here are some general guidelines for your consideration when selecting guardians for your minor children:
- Select guardians who share your faith, core values and life priorities and already have an established, positive relationship with your children
- When selecting a married family member, appoint the family member only and not their spouse, in case they divorce or your family member predeceases
- Ensure that your legal plans provide for compensation for the guardians, or at least that assets are available from your children’s inheritance to cover all expenses incurred on their behalf
- Obtain the permission of the selected guardians before appointing them in your legal plans
Sadly, too many parents spend more time together during a single evening out than they do making proper life and estate plans for the care of their children. Other related issues include the need to avoid probate, do appropriate estate tax planning, and plan for your own health care decisions at time of disability. We can help you explore appropriate planning options for the future of your greatest legacy: your children.
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With offices in Madison, the attorneys at Wilson Law Group assist clients with Estate & Business Planning, Probate & Trust Administration, and Elder Law & Medicaid Planning throughout Southern Wisconsin.