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Published April 06, 2013, 11:39 PM

A difficult decision: Choosing a potential guardian – and agreeing to be one – is a major life decision

FARGO – Shortly after his grandpa died, Wanda Simonson’s son, Gabe, began asking a lot of questions, including what would happen to him and his two sisters if his parents died.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

FARGO – Shortly after his grandpa died, Wanda Simonson’s son, Gabe, began asking a lot of questions, including what would happen to him and his two sisters if his parents died.

Wanda Simonson had once asked her close friend Stacie Olson, of Dilworth, if she’d be willing to take the children if something were to happen to her and Jon.

After Gabe brought it up, Wanda asked again.

Of course, Olson said.

“I was very honored, felt very privileged, that she asked us,” Olson says. “They’re one of those friends, they’re like family.”

Choosing a potential guardian is one of the most important decisions parents make, even when the likelihood of it becoming reality is small.

Most often, the selection of guardian is contained within a will, says Susan Ellison, an attorney who practices family law with Ohnstad Twichell in West Fargo. This is known as a testamentary guardian.

“By and large, parents acknowledge it’s important to name a guardian,” Ellison says. “But on the other hand, parents struggle to make that choice.”

Making and documenting this choice can be especially important in cases where one parent is estranged, as law favors the biological parent, Ellison says. In blended families, stepsiblings could be separated.

Often, clients that come to her office to appoint a guardian have seen a situation unfold with friends or family where no appointment had been made. In those cases, a judge decides guardianship. If no one steps forward, the county could become involved.

As a nurse, Simonson faces the grim realities of life and death. She wanted to have plans in place, just in case.

Simonson went to high school with Olson, and they became friends while playing fast-pitch softball. The women lost contact after high school, but reconnected after each had her first child.

Now both families have three kids around the same age. They go to the same church, and share some of the same activities and interests, Simonson says.

“I know that (Olson) would make the same decisions that I would for our kids. She would make sure they would be in both families’ lives,” Simonson says.

Ellison advises clients to consider their priorities in raising their children when choosing a guardian. This may include church home, extracurricular activities or future education goals.

The potential guardian must be at least 18 years of age. The guardian should be able to provide basic care, namely the child’s physical and emotional well-being, Ellison says.

Beyond that, who would be the best guardian is largely subjective. Parents may want to consider the number and ages of children the potential guardian already has, where this person lives, and their morals and ethics.

Katie Dahlstrom, a marriage and family therapist with the Village Family Service Center, recognizes thinking about guardianship can be difficult. She once had a client facing a terminal illness who struggled to name a guardian.

“You feel like you’re the best person (to raise your children), you have to settle with who would be second-best,” Dahlstrom says. “I think thinking about your own values and whose values are most similar to yours is really important. A lot of people think about who can give the children financially the best life, but that might not be the most important thing.”

Dahlstrom suggests thinking beyond immediate family members when identifying potential guardians.

A child’s grandparent may seem like an obvious option, but the age and health of the grandparent needs to be considered.

Ellison always advises clients name an alternate guardian, perhaps two.

She says parents can be very specific about their wishes within a will and name guardians based on different parameters.

While a will is the best place to name a guardian, writing the choice down on a piece of paper and having it notarized would be considered a sworn statement and likely be given weight by a judge, Ellison says.

It’s also important parents talk to the potential guardian before making a decision.

“You may not know key factors that would affect your decision,” like an impending divorce, move or job loss, Ellison says.

It’s best to broach the topic frankly, Dahlstrom says.

“It can be a sensitive topic, but I think it can be a direct question,” she says. Their initial reaction may help the parents in the decision-making, she adds.

The potential guardian also needs to give full weight to the question.

“The parents need to press the potential guardian to really think about if they would be committed to raising an additional child,” Ellison says.

Ellision points out that the responsibilities of a guardian don’t automatically end when the child turns 18.

Dahlstrom says while children probably shouldn’t be included in the discussion, but should be informed of the decision.

“I think kids are relieved to know you’ve thought about that,” she says.

When Simonson told Gabe he and his sisters would go to the Olsons, “he got excited and felt much better,” she says.

Simonson says she wondered if the decision would hurt anyone’s feelings, as both she and her husband, Jon, have large, close families. “But I think they realize it goes much farther than that,” she says.

Olson has also had the conversation with her husband, Brady, and chose a potential guardian and secondary. A magazine article Olson read about a situation where the decision hadn’t been made and the family started fighting triggered the talk.

“It was probably the hardest decision we’ve made in our life. You have kids and you think you’re going to raise them well into adulthood and have grandkids, but that’s not always the case,” Olson says. You need to “find somebody who will take them into their home, love them and raise them up right in the world like you would.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556

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