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'90s FAMILY : Choose a Guardian, but Make Your Vision Clear : Children: How your kids are cared for in the event of your death will shape the kind of adults they become.

November 15, 1995|KATHLEEN O. RYAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Your child's life without you in it. A possibility that any parent finds daunting. Yet parents who don't consider the chance of their own untimely deaths gamble recklessly with their children's future well-being.

Any child left parentless without an appointed guardian can become the object of messy family custody battles or, worse, a ward of the court.

"How these children are transferred into another situation affects their resilience and determines how they will deal with the death of their parents. It can determine what kind of adult that child will become," says the Rev. Ronald D. Beams, a certified grief and bereavement counselor for 10 years and director of clergy relations at Forest Lawn Mortuaries.

"When both parents die, this is obviously a raw deal for the child," says Dr. Roxy Szeftel, a child psychiatrist who is director of child and adolescent psychiatry for Cedars-Sinai Hospital and works in the area of grief and mourning counseling. "That's why you have to promote as much stability as possible in their lives."

Szeftel suggests naming someone who is responsive to your children and will raise them with your vision in mind. "You want someone who will fit into your child's lifestyle," she says.

Making your vision clear can be accomplished with a testamentary trust--a legal portion of a will that states wishes regarding education, religious upbringing and financial arrangements. It is the only recourse your relatives have after your death to ensure that the guardian you choose does indeed follow your wishes.

Parents should also make a second and third selection for guardianship in the event the guardian they choose cannot accept their responsibilities, becomes disabled or dies.

"It's important that the No. 2 and 3 choices as well as the entire family support the guardian in raising that child," Szeftel says.

Some parents have little doubt who would make the best guardian for their children, but for many the choice is an emotional task fraught with "what ifs" and guilt.

One of the best ways to make the decision is by putting yourself in the guardian's shoes, says Gina MacDonald, a Santa Clarita Valley estate and trust attorney specializing in conservatorships. "Will this person be able to take care of all your children? Would the guardian need to add on to their home or move to larger one?"

Make sure your prospective choice is willing. Ask them to be honest. Consider their age and how old they will be when your child turns 18. For example, while few grandparents would say no to such a request, parents need to reasonably consider if someone in their 60-plus years could raise small children.

Even when a guardian is named, the courts must still approve that person or persons to take care of the child, MacDonald says. "In 90% of the cases, the court does approve the chosen guardian, but that person is still held accountable to the court every year or two until the child turns 18," she says.

Along with naming a guardian, parents may also make financial arrangements for expenses and education of their children in their wills. MacDonald advises against making the person responsible for your children also responsible for your estate.

"By naming a different person or institution as guardian of the estate, you set up a checks and balances type system that protects your children and whatever their survivor income might be," she says. "This also allows management of funds beyond the child's 18th birthday when court supervision ends."

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