Understanding the Difference Between Godparents and Guardians

When welcoming a new child into a family, there are many important decisions that need to be made. Among the most important will be making sure your child is properly cared for no matter what the future brings. A common misconception among parents today is that the people that they have named as godparents will automatically be those chosen to become legal guardians should the biological (or adoptive) parents pass away or become incapacitated.  In the eyes of the law, godparents are not guardians.

A godparent is typically someone who the parents have chosen to sponsor the child into a church. This is most commonly found in Christian churches, though other religions also have the role of godparent. Prior to modern guardianship laws, those who were named as godparents would also assume the responsibility of raising the children should the parents be unable. This wasn’t a legal standard, however, but simply a tradition, which some people (mistakenly) still believe to be law.

Naming someone as a guardian, the person or people legally designated to raise and care for your children in your absence, is one of the most important things you can do as a parent to ensure your child is taken care of, no matter what. There are many things to consider when naming your child’s guardian – the most important being that it takes more than a verbal agreement between you and the chosen party and must be legally recorded.

Below is a list of things to consider when choosing a guardian:

  1. Consider all possible options for guardianship. Make a list of everyone you would trust to care for your children in your absence.
  2. Name more than one Guardian.  What if something happens to your only choice?  Have a second and even third choice who can step in.
  3. Name Short-Term Guardians in addition to Long-Term Guardians.  These are people who can get to your home in a matter of minutes and are legally authorized to stay with your children until your long-term guardians can arrive.
  4. Guardians do not need to be relatives. Whose values and parenting philosophy most closely match your own? 
  5. Think beyond the material things. You can plan ahead for the financial aspects of guardianship by properly structuring your estate plan, which frees you to choose a caregiver who can provide the intangible qualities that most resemble your own.
  6. Be practical.  Are your choices healthy and capable?  Do your choices have children of their own? If you choose a couple and they get divorced, would either of them be your choice on their own?
  7. Create an Exclusion of Guardian.  If there are people you know you would never want as Guardian of your children, be sure to document this in your estate plan, in case they challenge your chosen Guardian.
  8. Write down why you chose your Guardian. If your choice is challenged by other people you did not choose, a court will have, in writing, good, solid reasons supporting your choice and will be more likely to enforce your decision.
  9. Talk to your chosen Guardian before you sign your documents.  Being chosen as a Guardian is a huge responsibility.  Make sure the people you’ve chosen agree and are ready to be there for your children in the event they are called upon.

It is possible, and not uncommon, for someone to be named as both godparent and Guardian. When this is the case, however, parents need to handle each role separately. Working within their house of worship, the parents will name someone as a godparent. Using estate planning tools they will legally choose and document who would be named as guardian.

Today it is very common for each child to have different godparents since it is seen largely as an honorary title. Since most parents will want their children raised together, godparents and guardians often are not the same person. This does not present any type of legal issues or obstacles, nor does it even have to be mentioned in legal documents.

When you have a child you will need to do everything possible to make sure they are cared for until they become adults. Naming someone as a legal guardian is one of the most important things you can do to help ensure they have everything they need. We can help to create or update a Will that will name the person or people you desire as guardians. Please contact us to get this process started right away.

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The Parents Estate Planning Law Firm, PC is a unique estate planning law firm serving families in Massachusetts. Our team is committed to helping parents at all stages make sure their loved ones are completely protected if the unexpected happens, while making things as easy as possible for their families.

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