I’m going to talk about sad things in this blog, like dying before your kids are 18 years old. Just to forewarn you.
However, it’s a really important part of my job and should be something you think about if you have kids under the age of 18. None of us know when we’re going to die, but it will happen. Hopefully not for a very long time and hopefully only when you’re surrounded by your great-grandchildren and you peacefully fall asleep.
But, if you die before your kid is 18, state law requires that the court appoints a guardian for that kiddo. A guardian is the legal representative for a minor if both parents are gone. This is the person making sure your kiddo is fed, clothed, educated, etc. Even though you’ve died, you retain some control over who that person is going to be but the only way to make your desires known is to nominate a guardian in your Will. A court will use your Will to appoint the guardian after you’ve died.
So often, my clients are asking to make sure the guardian “keeps their kids in private school” or “takes them to New York to visit their grandparents every summer” or “eats their vegetables.” These are totally appropriate parent things to be concerned about but, unfortunately, not something I would ever suggest putting into a Will. Why? Because a Will is a strictly enforced, legal document that costs money to administer. It’s impractical (and impossible) to use a Will to regulate the non-financial aspects of raising a child.
All that said . . . education, vacations, diet, etc. are super important parenting issues. And those need to be communicated to the person acting as the guardian of your kids. So, how is that communicated? Glad you asked . . . with a love letter!
A love letter is not a legal document. It’s super informal. You can handwrite it or type it. You can get really detailed or make a basic list with a few bullet points. You can be annoying. The audience is the potential/future guardian of your children. You should tell that person what you want for your kid(s) and what’s important to you. As a parent to two very young children, I think this is, actually, a wonderful exercise to really pin-point what is important to you in raising your child, regardless of when you die.
Some ideas to get the juices flowing:
- Where do you want them to live? I’ve had clients direct that a family member is the guardian but that they would like their children to live with a friend during the school year, so they can stay in the same school. Holidays and “home” would be at the family member’s home and the family member would be in charge of the legal stuff.
2. Do you want them to go to church? If religion and attending church is an important thing in your family and you want your kids to be raised in that environment (or the opposite, as the case may be), tell your guardian.
3. Do you want them to attend public or private school? To the extent this is a choice, it’s great to help your guardian prioritize how to spend money left behind to your kids. Usually, private school is a legitimate use of money left for a kiddo, so help them understand what is important to you.
4. Do you want them to get pajamas on Christmas Eve every year? Full disclosure: this is my family’s tradition and I totally want my kids to get pajamas on Christmas Eve every year, even if I’m not there. My guardian needs to know this. (See picture for my kids in their most recent Christmas jammies.)
5. What routines are the kids used to? “7:00 is bath time, then we read 2 books and have a glass of warm milk (8 oz, 45 seconds in the microwave), then we brush our teeth (a challenge), then we go to bed and they each like their fave blanket and you’ll need to sing ‘Edelweiss’.” Give your guardian a leg up on the challenges of bedtime!
6. What are your rules? You’ve worked hard setting rules (e.g., screentime, sharing, bedtime, candy intake, etc.); let your guardian know about them to keep things on track.
7. What do you want for your kids? Spoiler alert: I want to be there with them as they grow up!! Is that too much to ask? For real, though: this is the hardest one as it’s really sad. What can you communicate to the guardian to explain what your hopes are for your kiddo?
Remember, the things included in a love letter are not legally enforceable, but writing them down and communicating them to the guardian gives that person insight into your parenting style and priorities and will help them as they attempt to fill your (unfillable) shoes.
So, your to-do list: (1) get a Will to nominate a guardian; (2) write a love letter to that guardian.