There is no greater honour than being asked to be the legal guardian of a close friend or family member’s child if anything were to happen to them. The request means that they have enormous faith in you as a human being – to entrust you with the most precious thing that they have, and count on you to raise their children with love and responsibility.
But when a friend or sister or cousin calls you up to ask you to agree to be their new baby’s guardian, it’s easy to say yes without giving due consideration to that last part: responsibility. Having your own children is an enormous commitment; taking on someone else’s is even more so. This is why, before agreeing to take on something so huge, it’s important to have an honest discussion about the true implications of the request.
Arrange a time to get together to ask these questions and discuss the answers:
Is your guardianship written into their will?
If this is not the case, then the children could become wards of the state and you would have no way of proving that you had agreed to be their guardian. The Family Court would in all likelihood look favourably upon an application by a willing and financially secure friend or family member (you), but it would save a lot of admin (and potential heartbreak) for this to be formalised in a will.
Do they have life insurance and who is the beneficiary?
Children cost a lot of money. You have to feed them and clothe them. They need to be educated, and there are clothing and equipment costs associated with that. You’ll also have to pay for their medical care. These expenses easily add up to thousands of rands every month, which means that you need to have some idea of how you’ll fit them into your budget.
Because of the realities of all these costs, your friends/family members should have life insurance to make sure that their children will have financial support if they lose their parents. If they don’t, you need to talk about the financial realities of the future – especially if you have your own children or are struggling to make ends meet.
Will there be a trust and if so, what are its conditions and who are the trustees?
Many people leave instructions in their will for a trust to be set up to take care of their children’s financial affairs while they are still underage. So it is important for you to understand whether the life insurance pay-out will come to you, for your expenses in raising the child, or into a trust.
If the money does go into a trust, find out exactly what the conditions of the trust are – how much will be allocated to the children’s upkeep every month and how will you apply for more funds if they are needed.
Usually, a trust has three trustees – two friends or family members and a financial professional. It’s important to understand who these people are because they will hold the purse strings, and if you anticipate any kind of conflict, now’s the time to speak out.
What are their expectations of how you should raise their children?
This is really the crux of what you’re agreeing to. Do they want their children to keep going to the same schools as they did before? Live in the same city? Have regular visits with family members that live far away? Continue to do ballet, French and extra maths? Go to cricket camp in India?
It’s important to work out whether it’s possible for you to deliver on these expectations or for them to understand that they need to compromise (or up their life insurance to fund a driver to help you deliver on these commitments).
You should also request that the parents create a document detailing all the important aspects of their children’s lives for which you will be responsible: family members, doctors, dentists, therapists, extra-mural activities and any other individual or service that contributes to their lives.
Think of any other considerations that affect you directly
Remember that taking care of children is a big commitment. If you have your own children, you will have to work out some kind of emotional and financial fit so that everyone doesn’t feel compromised. If you are childless, the impact on your life will be enormous.
Give due consideration to all the ways in which your life will change – your work or leisure travel, your and their entertainment needs, their need to be fetched and dropped from academic, extracurricular and social engagements, and any costs that may be associated with all of this. Make sure that you’ve discussed the expectations with the parents so that nobody comes up short.
When all’s said and done
While the focus of this blog post is to encourage you to think seriously about the responsibility of taking on someone else’s children, the point is not to discourage you from this course of action. Your dear friend or family member must have a good reason for wanting you to be their children’s guardian, and since this is not a decision taken lightly, they have probably given these points a lot of thought already.
However, any agreement you make could one day come to pass, so it’s vital that you’ve given consideration to matters that directly affect you and your family – and the children themselves – before their parents aren’t around to express their wishes and explain their thinking.