Choosing a guardian to raise your kids in the event of your death (and that of any co-parent you have) might be one of the toughest, most complicated decisions you’ll ever make as a parent. It’s also a decision we know we should make, but one that a lot of us delay, brush off, or avoid completely. None of us want to imagine dying while our children are still young. But as morbid as it may seem, identifying your literal parental replacement is something you need to do.
If deciding to choose a person feels hard, actually choosing is even harder. Here are some things to think about as your narrow down the options for your (possible but not probable!) replacement.
Start with a few basic considerations
As much as you might want to go straight to your top pick—the person you think would raise and love your kids as closely as possible to the way you would—there are some basic factors to take into account. After all, you don’t want to burden someone with such an epic responsibility if it doesn’t logistically make sense.
First, their age and your kids’ ages. Maybe your parents seem like the best option, but they’re in their 70s and your children are but wee little ones. They might have the stamina to take on a parental role now, but what will life look like for them in a decade, when the kids are hitting their teenage years? Or maybe your brother has youth on his side but he currently lives in a tiny apartment with a couple of roommates.
You’ll also want to consider their proximity to you. It may not matter much when the kids are very little, but once they are older and entrenched in school and other activities, it would be much harder on them to be uprooted from their hometown and sent to a far-flung relative, especially given that they are also grieving your death in this hypothetical situation.
Consider their experience
It’s true that you didn’t have any parenting experience before having kids, but learning on the spot with your own baby is much different than suddenly finding yourself a full-time parent to, say, a 12-year-old and an 8-year-old.
Their not being a parent is not necessarily a reason to eliminate someone from the running—they might have a special bond with your kids or have a job in which with they work with children, and you are confident they could step into a parenting role. But it’s certainly worth thinking through how jarring the transition would be for them.
You may have decided your sister is the best (or only) person to raise your kids in your absence. Great, but you’re not done yet; you have to actually ask her. The conversation itself can be a bit awkward, sure. Your sister is probably going to feel incredibly honored that she is the person you most trust with this task—but it’s also a major ask. It’s highly unlikely that she’ll ever actually be called on to raise those kiddos, but she needs to be prepared for the possibility, however remote.
You should make it clear that you know you’re asking something huge and that if it’s not something she’s willing or able to do, she should tell you before you go writing her name into your will. There may be information about her life, her health, or her career that you’re not privy to but would impact this decision. This is not a thing you want to spring on her from the afterlife.
Reconsider your choice every so often
A lot can change over the course of a childhood. People become ill. Or they move abroad. Or they have four children of their own and no longer have room for the three you’d bestow upon them. The person you’d choose when your first child is a few months old might not be the same person you’d choose when you’ve got a couple of teenagers. It’s okay to change your mind as the situation warrants.
Every few years, take stock of your life and the life of your potential guardian and reevaluate whether your choice still makes the most sense for everyone involved. If you decide you need to make a change, talk to everyone involved so there are no big surprises later.