I’m not going to lie. Lately I’ve noticed parents sidesteppping me at social gatherings. Whether I’m at a cocktail or a kiddie party, as soon as I say what I do these days, it seems I’m about as popular as pinkeye.
I write about estate planning. Turns out, over half of the population doesn’t have a will, and the percentage only climbs for those with kids — the group that actually can’t afford to live without one. So, for the past year, I’ve been interviewing families, trying to figure out why people don’t pick a guardian for their child and cross it off their parenting list?
As it happens, parents would rather talk about pretty much any other part of their personal life than answer this question. But when they finally do start talking, almost everyone has the same misconceptions about the process. In fact, most folks are letting four major myths hold them back from getting the job done and protecting their kid in case the worst happens.
Myth #1: There is a perfect match
I see this play out all the time. “We’re just looking for the right person,” parents say. “You know — someone like us.” Meaning, they can’t find someone who would raise their child exactly like they would.
The Danger: People who search for the perfect guardian end up spending so much time examining (and dismissing) each candidate that they never get around to actually writing their will.
Unfortunately, parental doppelgangers don’t exist. There is not a person on earth who would parent just like you, and of course, nobody is a perfect parent. I recommend a three-fourths approach. Write down your four most important core values — think about things like parenting style, religious beliefs, attitudes about education and money — and then try to find a friend or a relative who shares at least three of them. Take comfort in the fact that your choice is never set in stone. You can always name a different guardian when your children age, or your friends move away, or you simply change your mind.
Myth #2: Someone will step up anyway
If I had a dollar for every time I hear: my child has so many devoted people in her life, if something ever happened to us, our friends and relatives would be fighting to take care of her.
The Danger: Without a will, a judge makes the final decision, not you. And while your in-laws and neighbors are all vying for custody, your child could be caught in the middle — meeting with lawyers and social workers until the whole mess is sorted out. Some children even land in foster care while their case grinds its way through the legal system.
Time for a dose of tough love: the “so many people” excuse is a cop out. No one wants to think about leaving a child behind, but if you’re a parent, you’ve got to get your act together, and choose somebody.
Myth #3: You’ve left a letter or an email
A good number of parents say they’ve stashed a letter somewhere, or have this email on their laptop outlining their last wishes, so that’s where their child would go, right? Not necessarily.
The Danger: No matter how eloquently you’ve voiced your preferences, your letter or email is not legally binding. A judge could take it under advisement, but he could also come to his own “better” assessment. And why risk it? If you’ve taken the time to consider the right person, why not just make it official and seal the deal?
Myth #4: You don’t have to ask
I often work with parents to help them pick the best choice for their family. But then, they don’t want to sit down and actually ask their guardian.
The Danger: If you don’t have the face-to-face, you don’t know how they feel about the role (some people don’t want the responsibility, no matter how much they love your kid), or what questions they have for you. Raising an additional child is a huge commitment. Your guardian may want to get a sense of your family’s financial picture and some of your day-to-day expectations: have you got a life insurance policy? College savings? Would you want your guardian to move into your place? Make room in theirs?
A little prying is a sign that the person or couple you’ve chosen takes your child’s future seriously. I recommend having all of the financial information organized ahead of time, and sharing it openly when you sit down to talk, so everyone has an accurate sense of what it would really mean to care for your child.