Why Parents Procrastinate in Writing Their Will . . . and Nine Questions to Help You Overcome It
It’s not the morbid thought of death that causes it. And it’s not the expense of drafting the document, because that’s virtually negligible. Instead, the most common excuse parents give for putting off writing a will is trying to decide who will raise the children. This decision is what brings the process to a screeching halt.
Writing a will is easy for young parents, because most people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s still see themselves as immortal. Parents of grown children know they aren’t. If you’ve recently become a grandparent, this topic still has relevance, because you may need to talk about this subject with your kids.
Deciding on a guardian and how to provide for their kids’ financial needs is difficult. As a result, a lot of parents do the worst thing of all: nothing. This means the decision, if one becomes necessary, will be made by a judge or county official.
It’s important not to let that happen. Don’t let a stranger decide who will raise your kids. But, if you’re stuck on how to proceed, the following steps may help you.
Sit down with pen and paper and answer the following questions, providing as much detail as possible. If you’re deciding as a couple, answer the questions separately and then compare your answers. Some of the questions will take some thought, so you might not be able to answer them right away. That’s okay. Answer what you can at the first sitting and set a deadline to finish the rest.
1. List your candidates for guardian. Listen to your gut instinct and answer the following questions with these people in mind.
2. Is it likely that the candidate(s) will live for many years? Remember, you’re planning for someone to take care of your kids if you die ... losing a guardian can also be devastating for a child. A lot of people want to name grandparents, but they aren’t always the best choice because of their age.
3. How good is the health of the candidate(s)? Are they physically and mentally able to accept the responsibility? Do they have the energy? Another caveat for grandparents is they may be great as weekend baby-sitters, but having your kids permanently requires something more. Are they up to it?
4. Do the candidates have kids of their own? If so, would adding yours to their household be too much for them to handle? Raising a family is expensive and hectic, particularly for many two-income families. Your proposed guardians already may feel that their plate is full (or even overflowing). Conversely, if they don’t have kids, are you confident they know how to raise children?
5. Do the candidates have time to raise your kids? Are they a two-career family, or does one parent stay home? Would the candidate be likely to rely on daycare? Do you have strong feelings about whether your kids are raised in one environment or the other? You’ll want to consider a guardian who shares your beliefs.
6. What are the candidates’ views on education and religion? Do you insist on home-schooling or private education? Do they share your religious beliefs? Will the candidates raise your children with the same values and cultural traditions you would have provided?
7. Where do the candidates live? Moving your kids to some far-away place after losing their parents can make a difficult transition for them even harder because they will have lost not only their parents, but literally everything they are familiar with -- school, friends, nearby relatives, and favorite places and pastimes. You want to try to avoid this problem, but sometimes the best candidate for the job doesn’t live nearby. In such cases, perhaps the transition can be eased. For example, if possible, let the kids finish the school year where they are, or provide money for them to visit friends for extended periods.
8. What if the candidates divorce? You might want to consider adding a statement about who gets your kids if they ever divorce. And, if one of them dies, would you feel comfortable letting the survivor raise your kids alone?
9. Are the candidates financially secure? While you shouldn’t let wealth (or lack of it) be the sole basis for choosing one candidate over another, you do want to know your kids will be in a financially stable and safe environment. While you probably want to leave all your money to your kids, be realistic about the financial impact that raising them will have on their guardian. Indeed, the guardian is sure to incur expenses associated with raising them, such as adding a room onto the house or buying a bigger car, so you should make your assets available to help them. Otherwise, the guardian (or the guardian’s spouse or children) could become frustrated. Several issues must be balanced carefully here: You want your money to be used for the benefit and welfare of your kids, and the assets to be available to help the guardian as needed, but at the same time you want to protect against the assets being squandered by the guardian or others (maybe even your kids!). A good estate planning attorney can help you achieve these goals.
As you consider these questions, feel free to change your mind. You also may find that you prefer certain people for some issues but not for others. That’s okay, too: This process is all about identifying the strengths and weaknesses of potential guardians, not just blurting out an answer based on emotion alone. Often the most appropriate person is the best all-around candidate rather than one whom you prefer in some areas, but not in others.
Only after you’ve decided (if you are deciding as a couple) should the two of you compare notes. By writing down the reasons for your preferences beside each question (not just the names), each of you can better understand where the other is coming from. Perhaps you’ll find that your partner’s reasoning is more sound than yours.
Pick a guardian you both agree on, even if that means you each accept someone who is not necessarily a favorite. After choosing, be sure to ask your candidate if he or she is willing. Have the person sleep on it, and be sure the person’s partner, if any, concurs.
Above all, remember: If you fail to make a choice, you are leaving the decision up to the probate court, where all of the people you considered above (and possibly others) will fight over the decision, with the judge acting as referee. It’s a difficult task for a judge, since he or she has never met you and will have no idea what you would have wanted.
If the thought of making a choice sends you into a panic, remember that you can always change your mind. I’ve seen clients change their minds every other year, as their family circumstances change. If your parents seem the best option today, pick them. In a few years, when they’re older or have become ill, you can change your mind. Or maybe your choice marries someone you don’t like, or suffers a setback of some kind. No problem. Just base your decision on the facts as they are today, and rest assured that as times change and people change, your mind can change, as well.