Writing a Will and Choosing a Guardian

Now that you’re a parent, it’s time to create a will and choose guardians for your children. This does more than just distribute your belongings and determine who will care for your children if you die prematurely, it can also determine the quality of your children’s lives

When it comes to your children’s welfare, you need to designate a person or persons to fulfill two different responsibilities: caring for your children and taking care of your assets on your children’s behalf. It’s not unusual to choose one person to take care of your children, and another to watch over your assets.

Caring for Your Children

In almost all cases, custody will be given to a surviving parent, if one exists. If custody is not given to a surviving parent, or if there is no surviving parent, then a court will look to your will for guidance.

The guardian will be responsible for raising your children, so you should designate someone you believe will give them the love and attention they need and who has values that match your own. It’s also important to realize that a guardian’s spouse will play a significant role in the upbringing of your children.

Before designating a guardian, make it clear to the person you’ve chosen what you would expect, and make sure he or she (as well as the spouse) are willing to accept the responsibility. It is acceptable to change your choice of guardian should circumstances change.

Managing Your Assets

If you are married to the natural parent of your children, have absolute trust in your spouse and possess few assets, then it’s probably easiest to use a simple will, with each spouse leaving everything to the other. It’s inexpensive and less cumbersome than other options.

If you’re not comfortable with this plan, and you have assets that you own separately from your spouse, then you must choose someone who will take care of the assets on your children’s behalf – either a “guardian of the property” or a “trustee.” Again, this could be the same person who has the responsibility of caring for your children, but it doesn’t have to be. Be sure to consider the financial skills of the person you are selecting.

Many people prefer using the trustee option. In a trust, you place assets in your child’s name and then appoint a trustee to watch over those assets. Unlike a guardian, whose job ends when a child turns 18, a trustee can continue watching over the assets. Many parents choose to dissolve a trust when the child reaches 25.

Even though a trust costs more to have drawn up than a simple will, it is often preferable to a guardianship because it will save money in the long run. Unlike a trustee, a guardian must regularly report to the court as to how money is spent and why, so it’s as if you are hiring the judge to be in charge of your assets.

The cost of having these legal documents drawn up ranges from $500 to $2,000 or more. Some local bar associations provide free or low-cost legal services to low-income families.

Of course, doing it yourself is an option, too. Some state bar associations provide forms you can purchase for a nominal fee and several publishers offer books and software programs. Be aware, however, that it’s difficult for any single book, form or software to be as comprehensive as you might need.

By doing it on your own, you assume a certain amount of risk when you formulate your own documents. If your will is not adequately drawn up, it could significantly increase administrative expenses or fail to carry out your wishes. Still, do-it-yourself wills are certainly preferable to having no will at all, and most are adequate for people who don’t have a lot of assets.

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