Parents must plan for their parting

Jessica Young

Nancy Sidman has a 21-month-old son and another child on the way. And every time she sees her father-in-law, he asks whether she and her husband have made out a will yet.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever really talked about it. The guardianship issue has crossed my mind from time to time, but we haven’t formally pursued it yet,” the Berwyn resident said. “If we’re having a hard time picking a name for the new baby, how are we going to agree on something as serious as naming a person to raise our kids? It’s a frightening prospect, not being around to see them grow up and help them navigate through life.”

Sidman isn’t alone when it comes to postponing the “what if?” discussion. Many parents shy away from the subject, procrastinating rather than dealing with morbid hypotheticals.

“Usually, if you ask someone ‘If you die tomorrow, what would happen to your kids?’ they’d be stumped and answer with ‘Um, ahh...’” said Jordon Wolf, clinical social services manager at Hospice of Northeastern Illinois. “I’d hazard a guess that 80 percent of people with younger kids don’t have this issue taken care of. You’re still under the invincible superhero illusion. But tragedies happen, and there are a ton of factors to consider to ensure you’re picking the best person to be a surrogate.”

According to Sidman, guardianship is an overwhelming topic with an endless number of factors to contemplate.

“Do we choose my parents? But they’re older, so I don’t know if that’s a good idea — especially if we’re talking years down the road. My sister doesn’t live too far from us, but they have three kids already and aren’t super wealthy, so I’m not sure if that would be too hard on them,” she added. “And then I remember my parents choosing some friends and writing them into the will as guardians, but years later, they were no longer close. So what happens then in a situation like that?”

The mother is on the right track, however, in terms of figuring out permutations of potential arrangements, according to John Gutzke, an estate planner and partner at Rolewick & Gutzke, P.C. in Wheaton.

“There’s a laundry list of configurations, and choosing someone is a more complex issue than it appears,” he said. “You’ve got age, willingness, lifestyle, parenting philosophy, religion, financial security — a million things to take into account when trying to select the right person. It’s a missed opportunity if you don’t do some planning.”

Gutzke recommends that parents ask themselves some hard questions when whittling down the candidate list.

Are there geographic considerations? If the nominee is across the country in California, is it OK to transplant the kids? Does the guardian couple already have children? Are they just sending the last one off to college, leaving them with the task of starting from scratch with younger kids? Or does the chosen brother live a bachelor existence with little clue of how to handle runny noses and school bullies?

Additionally, it’s important for parents to articulate value sets, priorities and experiences they wish their children to have, Gutzke said. That’s why he suggests employing the use of an “owner’s manual,” which are available through many estate planners and stores like Borders.

“It’s a guide where you can write stuff down beyond the child’s allergies and the pediatrician’s number to give the guardian a clue on how you envision the upbringing,” he added. “It’s going to tell your (successor) that you want an emphasis on fine arts or athletics. And you can document your thought process on parenting decisions like whether your son or daughter should get a car right when they turn 16.”

But it’s not enough to simply write down a few preferences and give the selected guardian a heads-up about responsibilities that may one day come their way. There is a process to naming a guardian, and parents need to go through the proper channels because an oral agreement carries no weight in court. The matter can be addressed as part of a will or in a standalone document, and this is where provisions can be put in place. Yet nothing is 100 percent guaranteed.

“It’s a nomination, but if you die, the court does have final say using the ‘what’s in the best interest of the child?’ standard,” Gutzke said. “Judges usually give deference to your selection, but choices have been overruled. If the first-choice guardian has done a stint in jail, the court is going to say ‘Ahhh, you know what...? Who’s second on the list?’”

Which is why it’s a good idea to have a back-up in mind.

“Also you never know when something will befall the first choice — financial ruin, health issues — you never know,” Gutzke said. “Circumstances may have changed from when you appoint someone to, fast-forwarding five years later, when the kids need to be placed after something happens to you.”

Many parents aren’t aware that they can appoint one guardian to be a surrogate parent and another person to serve as trustee to handle the child’s inherited estate, he added.

“More often than not, the parenting and fiduciary responsibilities should be split up. They’re two different skill sets,” Gutzke said. “The child’s guardian can relinquish the accounting, investment decisions and tax filing duties. But they can still retain power over discretionary distribution like what the money can be spent on.”

This way, there are checks and balances built into the system. Still, it doesn’t hurt for parents to leave financial directions for how a trust should be used, like whether it should be accessed to pay for a wedding, Gutzke added.

But often, it’s the emotional and moral compatibility that’s the most crucial consideration for parents.

“Ultimately, you’re looking for individuals who are congruent with your school of thought, who are going to have similar dinner table conversation with the kids,” said Wolf, who works closely with the Center for Loss and Hope, which caters to six surrounding counties including Kane, DuPage and suburban Cook.

While dwelling on the possibility that a freak accident or fatal illness could orphan parents’ young children may be not be the most feel-good exercise, it’s a parenting necessity.

“No one likes to think about their own mortality — it’s depressing,” said Tom Dewese, clinical director at TriCity Family Services, a nonprofit counseling agency in Geneva. “But people would be dumbfounded if their niece or nephew suddenly showed up on their doorstep. That’s why it pays to envision the worst-case scenario of both of you walking out the door and then prepare accordingly.”

Wolf agreed, encouraging parents to lay the cards on the table before everyone is forced into crisis mode.

“It’s an ugly conversation, but if you figure all that out now, it’s easier for people to know — at least at a mechanical level — how to react in a horrific situation,” Wolf said.

"You want to automatically have all mechanisms kick in to help everyone adjust and settle in. You want to cause the least disruption to the kids’ lives so that everyone begins to acclimate to the new environment and family unit,” he added. “And having the guardianship issue straightened out will help to that effect.”

Suburban Life