One of the first questions new clients ask me is how to pick a guardian who can raise their child with special needs or make decisions for her when they are unable to do so. What should they look for? Should they ask a sibling or someone else from their family? Is it better to identify someone who is not a relative, who might be better able to make difficult decisions without letting emotions cloud their thinking? All good questions and exactly the ones you should pose before choosing the person who could be responsible for the wellbeing of your child.
Unfortunately, there’s not a single answer: much depends on the situation, the personalities involved, the “gut feeling” that many parents have about the people they know and trust. There are some basic considerations that can help guide your decision. Here are five:
- You can change your mind. Naming a guardian is not a one-time event, so you shouldn’t feel that your child could be stuck with the wrong person at some point in the future – people move in and out of your life all the time, and changes are possible if necessary. That means you shouldn’t get so caught up trying to pick the perfect, long-term guardian that you end up making no decision at all. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should make the initial decisions lightly. Once appointed, the same guardian could serve potentially throughout your child’s lifetime.
- There are no prerequisites. Naturally, it may feel more right to designate a person who has spent time with – ideally taking care of – a child with special needs. There are no specific experience requirements for guardians, so you shouldn’t limit your search to people with that background. The right person will learn as they go along (just like you).
- It’s not all about you. It’s important to remember when selecting a guardian that your principal objective in the process isn’t to find someone who will make the same decisions as you would. Rather, you want to pick someone who makes good decisions, and more to the point, who will make good decisions when considering the welfare of your child in the immediate and long-term future.
- Open and honest communication is key. It’s critical to have a conversation with the person you’re thinking of choosing. They need to know that you’re considering them, what they job entails, what you want for the future of your child, what resources are available, and more. And you need to know that they’re willing to do the work, that they’re going to approach decisions knowing your child is unique and precious, and that they’re going to embrace the responsibility that you’ve asked them to take on. That their beliefs are compatible with yours. That they’re willing to do it. That they’re the right person. There are few absolutes in this process, but ongoing open and honest communication is essential to making the right decision and then living with it.
- Don’t rely on a handshake. It can be hard to move from a touching discussion about the future of your child to a thick binder of documents, signatures, and other legal paperwork, but it is necessary. Your choice of a guardian must be formally nominated so that they can be appointed to make decisions quickly if you cannot. And of course, as noted above, your nominated person(s) should be aware of their nomination and willing to step forward when called, and the formality of the process can underscore the seriousness of your request.
Picking a guardian for your child is a big decision. But don’t let that get in the way of actually making it.