Perhaps the most important decision you will ever make is who will serve as guardian(s) for your children. In California, a child under the age of 18 is not legally qualified to care for her or himself if both parents die. Any child under the age of 18 must have a legally appointed guardian. Typically, guardians of minor children are named in wills.
In this state, the rights and responsibilities of a guardian are as follows:
- Healthcare—Guardians make healthcare decisions for the children, including medical, dental, psychological, and therapeutic care. In addition, absent an emergency, children over the age of 14 cannot have surgery without the express permission of a guardian or the court.
- Social services—Guardians are authorized to seek assistance from social programs, such as Head Start, services for children with developmental, psychological, or physical disabilities, and after-school programs.
- Shelter—Guardians determine where a child will live, however, moving outside a court’s jurisdiction, such as a different city or state, requires court approval. In addition, laws regarding guardianship vary from state to state, and a change in residence may invoke new requirements.
- Education—Guardians make decisions about a child’s education, including which school they will attend. They are also obligated to attend school conferences, monitor academic progress, and seek assistance for a child’s special needs.
- Financial support—Guardians are required to provide financially for a child, whether those funds come from personal employment, a support trust, or governmental programs.
- Legal matters—There are many decisions a child cannot make until they reach age 18. That means a guardian must authorize or make those decisions for them, including applying for a driver’s license, joining the armed forces, and entering into marriage. In addition, a guardian is responsible for a child’s conduct, whether that involves criminal acts or negligent ones.
A court may impose additional responsibilities as it sees fit. The following questions should guide guardianship decisions:
- Do your children know and like the appointed guardian? Do they get along with that person’s children? Is that guardian likely to adopt your children, blending them into their own family?
- Will the appointed guardian be able to cope with the emotional burden of raising children, especially children undergoing the trauma associated with the death of both parents? A guardian should have the skills necessary to provide a stable and nurturing home life. Not everyone qualifies.
- Can the appointed guardian handle the financial burden of additional children? What resources will be available if they cannot?
- What kind of parent is the appointed guardian? Does he treat his children the way you would like yours to be treated? Does he have a good relationship with his own children?
- What values are important to you? Do you want someone who is hard-working, volunteers time to charities, places great value on a college education, and/or will encourage participation in sports or musical instruction? Do you want your children to be raised by someone who practices a certain religion?
- What is the appointed guardian’s age? While your parents may be excellent grandparents, they may be too old to manage another set of children—especially through the teenage years.
Before finalizing a guardianship decision, confirm that the person selected is willing to serve. Guardianship can be very disruptive to everyone’s life. It is important that whoever is appointed is ready and willing to take on such an important role.