Who should be guardian? Family or friends?

I appointed my sister, but now I've got doubts about her fianc


Cary Tennis
April 17, 2006 3:32PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

After the birth of my daughter, my husband and I asked my sister to be her guardian should we die. A bit more than a year later, we have yet to make our wills. We are also expecting our second child, so a new sense of urgency in dealing with this has hit us. The thing is, we're no longer confident we made the right decision in choosing a guardian. It was, and is, a very emotional decision for me, and it was made based wholly on emotion. I've had slight misgivings from the start, as my sister and I are very different, and I've often felt she has not exhibited the best judgment in decisions both small and enormous. However, she adores my baby and we've always been very close, and I thought that was enough.

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Recently, she became engaged and will be marrying very soon. I have only met her fiancé once, and while he seems like a really nice guy, he is very different from my husband and me. A military man, he keeps guns in the house, and is fairly conservative and religious. My sister is not nearly as conservative, so there will be some balance (I hope), but as my husband and I are quite liberal and nonreligious (and do not pack heat), we are not comfortable with the idea of our children possibly growing up in an environment that may be radically different from the one we will provide.

We have some very close friends with children the same age as ours; they have very similar outlooks to ours, both on child rearing and life in general. My husband wants to ask them to be our children's guardians. There is a part of me that agrees with him, but another part is so torn. How can I choose friends when family is an option? (I also have another sister who is a potential candidate, but she is significantly older than I, and her kids are almost grown; I know she'd take my kids, but it would be an especially unfair burden to make her essentially start over when her child-rearing days are almost done). I know our friends would be wonderful parents to our kids, but can they ever love them as much as family? As I said, my sister is crazy about my daughter; I think she'd be devastated to find out she'd been replaced by our friends (if we do make the switch, I don't intend to tell her, but plan to leave a letter with the will; I feel there's no need to cause her pain for something that hopefully will never be an issue).

I love my family very much, and feel tremendously guilty about considering other guardians, but the most important thing is what's best for my kids. I'm just so confused right now, I don't know what would be best for my kids. My husband thinks this is all very cut and dried, but it's got me completely paralyzed. I can't put off calling the lawyer much longer! How can I reconcile all this?

Will-less and Torn

Dear Will-less,

Deciding who would raise your children if you were both to die is a grave matter. Rescinding such a request, once made, is sure to cause hurt feelings.

Putting aside your doubts about her fiancé's cultural and religious habits, there is much common sense to appointing a close relative. While your friends would in all likelihood honor the obligation, they might not feel it to the same unquestioning degree as would your sister. No matter what circumstances befall her, your sister's obligation will never flag. But friendships change with circumstance.

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Not telling your sister that you've changed your mind is a bad idea. She should know what might be expected of her in the future so she can plan for it. If she always maintained a larger house on the off chance that she would have to take in your children and then learned, upon your death, that you never intended her to do so, it would compound her loss with a sense of betrayal. So if you changed your mind, you would be obligated to tell your sister.

But telling your sister, as I said, is sure to cause hurt feelings. It is a vote of no confidence in her and her choice of husband. It will damage your relationship.

And if circumstance should dictate that your friends move far away, or if you should grow apart or have a fight, you would then be faced with the necessity of going back to your sister and asking her to reconsider, after having once spurned her. This would be even more difficult for everyone.

Would your sister agree? Of course. She would feel obliged to. How could she refuse? But it would place a cloud over the transaction. How would she know that you might not yet again find someone you deemed more suitable and change your mind? It would put her and her husband in an awkward spot.

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The benefits of making such arrangements with close family members are many. The bonds of family are unquestioned and permanent. Questions of social and religious attitude seem secondary. What matters is that the designated person feels the unquestioned necessity of caring for your children.

There is also the fact that other family members would also feel obliged to help out if your children went to your sister, so that the guardian would be guaranteed additional family support. That is not necessarily true to the same degree with your friends; their family members might be more inclined to help with the raising of their own flesh and blood. So your friends might get less support than your sister in such an undertaking. Likewise, your other sister might feel less inclined to help your friends than to help her own sister. While wishing to help in the raising of your children, she might be hindered by the lack of a strong, unquestioned relationship with your friends. And if it appeared to family members that your friends were relatively well off, they might be less inclined to help out financially with the kids' educations. Also, being not linked by blood, they would be less likely to know the intimate financial details of each other's conditions, and thus would be more likely to make erroneous assumptions.

For all these reasons I think that your dislike of your sister's fiancé is outweighed by the practical benefits of sticking with your original decision.

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So instead of changing your mind and thus weakening the bond with your sister, I suggest that you endeavor to strengthen it. You say you have only met her fiancé once. I suggest you redouble your efforts to welcome him into the family and try to understand where he is coming from. There are many things to recommend a military man. He can be depended on to honor obligations, for one thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with guns. Military men are taught gun safety. For a military man, a gun is a tool. It is a necessary part of life. Likewise, I do not see why the fact that he is religious should disqualify him. He is becoming part of your family. I suggest that you embrace your sister's choice, and be grateful for the fact that she already knows and loves your child, and is willing to take care of your kids no matter what happens.

So I would leave things as they are for now. Meet with your lawyer to get the fine points of this decision figured out. Get to know your sister's husband better. Let your children get to know them. Continue to spend a lot of time with your sister. Tell her that you would also like to be the guardian of her children, when and if she has them, if she is willing.

If they have kids, watch and see how they treat their kids. If the way they raise their children gives you cause for grave concern, then perhaps you should talk with them about it, and think about changing your minds. I mean grave concern -- like if they beat them or endanger their lives or abuse them emotionally.

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For now I would leave things as they are. Chances are, none of this will ever matter anyway. If all goes well, you will all lead long and happy lives and your grandchildren will play together and care for you in your old age.

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