It was like a meeting of Irresponsible Parents Anonymous. Shuffling anxiously into the sterile office, we were strangers to one another, with two shared attributes: shame that we hadn’t taken care of this sooner, and relief that we were finally doing something about it.
We are the laggard parents (perhaps you’re one of us?) who haven’t yet named a legal guardian for our children—haven’t debated the relative merits of various friends and family members to raise our children in the event of our untimely deaths, haven’t had the touchy conversation with said individuals wherein we ask them to accept the onerous responsibility of ushering our spawn gracefully into adulthood, haven’t filled out the legal paperwork making the decision official … But as you see, the process is complex.
It’s one of those parenting chores that fall into the category of “prudence”—and that I stink at. Saving for their college. Having them fingerprinted. Even getting them flu shots. So if I’m an unfit mother for not planning for their potential orphanhood, well, add it to the list.
I have a hard time imagining both my husband and me perishing simultaneously. We moms and dads can scarcely find the time to cop a feel in the kitchen, much less go out on a date in, say, a Ford Pinto … in a lightning storm.
But when a local law office held a recent workshop on guardianship, I dragged my imprudent posterior over there. And I’m glad I did.
It turns out that if parents die without designating a guardian in writing, a judge (i.e., stranger) decides where to send the kids. He can award them to whomever steps up to claim them (No! Not creepy Uncle Bill!) or put them in foster care (okay, I take that back. Is Bill still available?). Which is silly, because it’s quite easy to nominate a guardian. Get the forms online (Google “child guardian forms” and the name of your state), list the names of would-be guardians, sign it, have someone witness it, and give a copy to the guardians.
You can even specifically exclude someone that you don’t want caring for your kids. (No hard feelings, Bill.) You can also write a letter to the guardians voicing your values, educational preferences, extra-curricular suggestions. “This is a teenager’s worst nightmare,” said one of the other moms at the workshop, chuckling. “You’re still telling him what to do after you’re dead.”
We were surprised to learn that you can name second- and third-choice guardians, putting contingencies on each in case their lives change—divorce, relocation, job loss—in ways that make them less desirable candidates.
“What if they change their religion or food preferences?” asks a guy in the class. “You know, if they just want to eat vegetables?”
Sadly, I still haven’t filled out the forms. I’m stuck on the feeling-like-a-burden part. I know a dozen people who are over-qualified to raise my kids—but how could I ask them to? What would that conversation even sound like? “So, any special plans for the weekend? What about the next, like, 20 years?”
Frankly, all the good candidates are qualified because they live balanced lives, and if I upset that balance by tossing two kids onto their once-taut high wire, then they wouldn’t be qualified anymore anyway.
Feeding, clothing, sheltering, teaching, transporting, and tolerating children is an exacting task. Perhaps the fact that I see it as such explains why no one’s asked me to be their kids’ guardian. Which is just as well. Because I can tell you right now they’d never, ever get a flu shot.