It’s not easy for Sandy Sedgwick to find time to sit down for a heart-to-heart with her husband, Rick, these days. As Kelowna, B.C., parents of four boys – ages 13, nine, five and 19-months – it’s hard to find a few moments for a cup of coffee.
Lack of time. That’s one of the reasons why the busy couple hasn’t drafted a will and picked guardians for their children should the worst happen. Yet there’s another, even larger, issue: How should a guardian be chosen in the first place? Ms. Sedgwick admits that, like most parents, the idea of someone else raising her kids is upsetting, although she has been trying hard to come to terms with it.
“The first thing you have to accept is that there is no one on this planet who will do the same job raising your kids as you do, so you have to ask yourself, who is the next best person?” she says.
It’s definitely not an easy task, says Elyssa Lockhart, principal at Lockhart Law in Mission, B.C., who has three young children of her own. She tries to keep clients relaxed while talking about their wills by keeping the conversation informal. Yet when chit-chat turns to the topic of guardianship, it often becomes more serious and emotional.
“You can use humour to tackle some issues, but not this one. It’s really one of the hardest things to do – picking someone to raise your minor children when you’re not going to be there,” she says.
Besides the obvious – people don’t want to think about dying – there are numerous reasons parents find they can’t face the task. For starters, what if they don’t have many choices? Either friends and family live far away, are struggling financially or are simply unfit to take on the monumental job of parenting someone else’s kids. In other cases, parents can’t agree on a guardian because they’re from different cultural backgrounds and both want their children to have exposure to theirs.
“People are also concerned about the burden they’re going to put on someone else,” says James Sweetlove, a lawyer with Ross & McBride in Hamilton. “If I have three kids and my brother and his family already have three kids, how are they going to function with six kids? It’s a big load to put on them.”
Although wills can dictate that guardians have access to money in trust funds, it might not be enough to pay for a larger house with a larger mortgage.
Ms. Lockhart says she often comes across another common snag: Parents don’t want to choose because they fear it would mean hurting another family member’s feelings. In that case, she advises clients to get over it. After all, the parent is going to be gone and won’t have to deal with the fallout anyway. But avoiding choosing a guardian at all? Big mistake.
“In that moment after I pass, I don’t want my children wondering, ‘Now where do I go?’” she says.
Mr. Sweetlove agrees that even if a couple can’t settle on a guardian at first, it’s best to compromise and come to a decision.
“Because if people can’t agree, the default is to say nothing in which case you’re leaving it up to a judge to decide. Do you really want that?” he asks.
If parents are having difficulty making the choice, he advises them to write a memorandum that can be placed with the will. It can outline all the parents’ wishes and requests. For instance, if their daughter is showing an interest in gymnastics, the document can ask the guardian to encourage her by enrolling her in classes or camps. Writing down these goals is sometimes enough to put parents at ease.
It’s also important to remember that life has a funny way of changing. Even if a client does make a will and picks someone, guardians die, divorce and move to the other side of the world. It pays to take a look at the will every few years to see whether it needs to be updated. (A tip: Choose one person in a couple to be the guardian rather than both. That way you don’t have to rework the will if they split up.)
Although Ms. Sedgwick says she’s feeling ready to decide on a guardian, the cost of drafting a will is holding her back. Or rather, she’s concerned it will be pricey.
The reality? According to Mr. Sweetlove, a typical will written up for a typical family with children should run somewhere around $700. A relative bargain, considering what’s at stake.
“How much do you pay for car and house insurance? You may never even need those,” he says. “But some day you are going to need a will. Everybody dies.”
What to consider before you choose a guardian
For some families, deciding on a guardian is a no-brainer. A fun, loving and responsible aunt is the hands-down favourite with the kids. Or a best friend says he would raise your children as he would his own (and that’s a good thing). But sometimes the decision is less straightforward and you’ll need to consider a few things first.
• Who would you be most comfortable having your children live with? Why?
• Who does your child already feel comfortable with?
• Whose parenting style, values and beliefs most closely match your own?
• Who is most emotionally, financially and physically prepared to take on the responsibility?
• Would your child have to move far away?
• Would your guardian take all of your children or would they have to be split up among relatives and friends?
• Does the person you’re considering have other children? If not, how do you know he or she would make a good guardian?