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Appointing a Guardian for Minor Children is a Difficult Decision – Part I

Jenna and Mark Livingston were living the life of Reilly.  At age 30, they had thriving careers—Jenna as an attorney, Mark as a pediatrician—and three children, aged five months, two, and four. Together, they lived in a four-bedroom home in an exclusive neighborhood with their dog, Pepper.

Five months after the birth of their third child, Mark decided Jenna required a brief, romantic getaway. He booked a flight to a resort in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Mark’s parents agreed to care for the children while they were away. Once in St. Thomas, Mark and Jenna feasted on local fare and lingered on the beach, blissfully unaware that a tropical storm was brewing nearby.

Within hours, Jenna and Mark were hunkered down in a local assembly hall, waiting for the storm to pass. Unfortunately, by the time Astrid hit the Virgin Islands, it had developed into a Category Four hurricane.

While the couple clung to one another, terrified, Jenna said, “Right now, I am kicking myself that I didn’t get our estate plan updated before we left. We haven’t even named a guardian for the kids, and I just know everyone is going to fight over them. My sister, Geneva, is going to go full bore to get custody just for the financial pay-off, and your brother, Karl, will be right there with her, trying to get dibs on Joey. He will farm the others off to your parents. Neither one is qualified to raise our children the way we want them raised, I just know it.” She started to cry.

“What worries me most is what happens when those two discover there is no pot of gold at the end the rainbow,” Mark said. “With our student loans, and our new home, the only real asset we have to our name is life insurance, and we named each other as beneficiaries. No way the payout from those policies will support three children into adulthood.”

At that moment, the power failed and the hall was cast into darkness. The building shook, ceiling panels began to fall, then the roof blew away. Jenna and Mark did not survive.

While it may be unusual for both parents to die at the same time, it is not unheard of. Many times, couples view the possibility that one will survive as a safety net. It isn’t. Accidents occur all the time, and since couples tend to travel together, they are at greater risk for simultaneous death.

The parents of minor children have very specific estate planning needs:

  • Guardianship
  • Support, and,
  • Financial management

Each category requires careful consideration. For example, there may be relatives you would trust to raise your children, but not to manage related financial matters. And there may be people you feel would excel at handling financial matters for your children, but would serve as poor role models. The decisions you make will have an impact on the future well-being of your children.

The issues raised become even more problematic in the case of blended families, where both parents may share custody of the children. It is not unusual for blended families to be broken up and thrust into sometimes vastly diverse social and financial circumstances.