Published at 11 September 2023

5 steps to choosing a guardian for your children

If you have kids, you need to name a guardian for them when making your will. Consider these steps to help you make this important decision.

For many Canadians, drafting a will probably ranks up there with flossing. We know it’s a good idea to do it, but we either put it off or avoid doing it completely. According to a survey by the Angus Reid Institute early in 2023, half of adult Canadians have no will. It’s no surprise the older you are, the more likely you are to have a will.

84% of 18-to-24-year-olds don’t have a will. By age 45, the number declines to 49%, and by 65, to just 13%.

69% of Canadians most likely to have young families (ages 35 to 44) don’t have a will. And a significant percentage of older Canadians have out-of-date wills.

If you have children, your lack of a will may be due to more than just procrastination. Parents tend to delay making wills, says independent financial planner and advisor Mark Halpern, of Markham, Ontario. “It’s not that they don’t think it’s important,” he says. “It’s because they don’t know who to name as guardian for their kids.”

If this sounds familiar, these steps can help you with this important decision.

1. Ask the guardian first

Before you put pen to paper, talk to the potential guardian. Make sure they would be willing and able to take on the role. Throwing a name into your will doesn’t mean that person must take your kids, says Halpern. “The guardian always has a choice of saying ‘no,’ so why would you put down a guardian you haven’t spoken with?”

2. Consider all the angles

Ideally, you pick a guardian who shares your values. You want someone who will raise your children the way you would. So, for example, if ensuring your child goes to the best schools is important to you, then you should choose someone who values education just like you do.

Many people choose their own parents as guardians. It’s a worthy choice when your kids are young and your parents are still quite active. But be prepared to revisit your decision when your parents get older. “Suppose 12 or 15 years have gone by since drafting the will,” says estate lawyer Barry Fish of Thornhill, Ontario. “Have your parents become too old to fully fulfill the role?  What you can do in your 50s is not the same as what you can do in your 70s.”

You could choose a sibling and their spouse. This could be perfectly fine unless marital troubles arise. What if they end up divorcing? “Your kids could be drawn in as pawns in a custody battle,” Fish says. To avoid that scenario, you could name your sister as the guardian, but not your brother-in-law.

3. Remember to include contact information

Put all the guardians’ details in your will. Include full legal names, street addresses, telephone numbers and email addresses. Make a point of keeping this information current. Your executor may have difficulty finding them otherwise, says Fish.

4. Name a back-up guardian

Many people neglect to update their wills. The guardian you chose may die before you or become unable to do the job. Another consideration: do you still want this person to be your children’s guardian? What would happen if you lost touch with them, or had a serious falling-out after drafting your will? That’s why it’s important to name a backup (or ‘contingent’) guardian and review your will regularly.

5. Separate the roles of executor and guardian

These two roles are quite distinct, and best handled by different people. The executor oversees fulfilling your will’s wishes and distributing your assets. The guardian is responsible for the well-being of your children. If one person has both roles, a conflict of interest might arise. For example, your brother assumes both roles. He could be tempted to dip into the estate’s assets, since he’s also looking after your children. “It’s better to distinguish between the two roles so there are checks and balances,” Fish says. “The executor holds the purse strings, and the guardian asks for the money.”

As a parent, you want to protect your children should the worst happen. You want to be sure the best possible person is ready to step in and finish raising them for you. With some careful planning, you can put that protection in place — and hope your children never need it.