Patrick and I are driving down the interstate with our mountain bikes on the roof and some hilly trails in our immediate future, when I think of Felix, our six-month-old son, who’s just been deposited at his grandmother’s. More specifically, I think about what would happen to him if, suddenly, a behemoth logging truck spun out of control and crushed us into a messy roadside tragedy. What, exactly, would befall Felix? Where would he go?
This question already has an answer: with our close friends, who’ve already agreed to be guardians should Felix ever lose both of us. But who knows this, other than said close friends? Nobody. Our plans aren’t documented, legally or otherwise.
Within minutes I become convinced that the logging truck of my imagination is a very real threat; that it is possibly only minutes away. I panic, throw all sense of timing out the window, and whip out my phone to call my father. With little preamble I’m soon spilling the plan out over the rumble of traffic. I figure that if I tell my dad, he’ll see to it that our wishes are honored, even if they haven’t been finalized in print.
“Well,” he says. He clears his throat. “Well.” And then he starts to talk about my sisters, both single, in their twenties, and fantastic aunts.
For various reasons, I believe neither is a feasible choice for guardianship in the event that a logging truck kills me in ten minutes. I say this to my father, and he clears his throat before vaguely disagreeing without seeming to disagree completely. After a bit more throat clearing, he assures me that he’ll keep this information to himself until I’m ready to tell my sisters. I put the phone away, relieved that the conversation is completed, and that Patrick and I can now face death knowing that our son will be in the capable hands of our friends.
But the conversation isn’t completed. That evening I learn that my father has conferred with his older sister about my plans. She and my uncle are appalled, and he calls to tell me so. “You’re making a big, big mistake,” he says. “This is something that will cause a serious rift between you and your sisters.” He also throws out some worst case scenarios, the grimmest involving the death of one of our guardians, and the subsequent disappearance (with Felix) of the other. “And he’ll be out of the family forever. Gone.”
For a moment, I’m ashamed. Maybe I’m an idiot who can’t be trusted to make vital decisions. But then I’m pissed, because he completely disregarded my request that he not tell anyone else about our choice before I did. “Why’d you tell Aunt Bev?” I ask.
“Oh, she won’t say anything to anyone,” he says blithely. “She and I are the only two who know.”
“What about Uncle David?”
“Well. And Uncle David, of course.”
Now, this small act of telling, one that gave me peace of mind as I journeyed down the interstate, has morphed into a yoke of guilt. I begin to doubt our decision, even though we’d put months of thinking and discussion into it. Even though our friends are a kind, talented, and honest couple who have a wonderful home, and who would do everything they could to ensure Felix was always a part of his biological family. Even though, as his parents, the whole concept of having to do this in the first place is terrifically difficult. Because what parent wants to imagine their child growing up without them? Why would anyone consciously make a choice that would consist of anything less than the most ideal situation possible?
As I try to work my brain around how to manage my guilt, I ask friends with kids what they did. I’m gratified to learn that many have chosen outside of their families as well. One friend, an only child, cites the age of her parents as a big reason for her choice. Another was happy to choose his wife’s best friend and her husband, because they were already great parents. And finally, an old co-worker had a reason similar to my own: “I can’t imagine my boys with either my brother or my sister or with his (her husband’s) parents. But I can see them with Amy. She adores them and they love her to death. It’s the only choice I can even fathom.”
5 Things to Know About Guardianship
4. Choosing to make a will online is tempting, given the low costs. However, if you plan to set up a trust, or if you are wary of anyone contesting your choice of guardian, it’s probably your best bet to have a lawyer who specializes in estate planning working with you to ensure that every base is covered.
5. Your choice for guardianship can also be legalized by filing forms of guardianship and having them witnessed, signed, and notarized. Bear in mind, however, that these forms don’t necessarily stipulate how any money or life insurance is to be dispersed.
Maybe the discomfort of making these choices is why more than half of Americans don’t have wills. It’s easy to understand why, given the complexity of the decisions that need to be made when going through the arduous estate planning process. However, without proper documentation, anyone can claim interest in serving as a child’s guardian if he’s left orphaned, with the final decision belonging to an impartial judge.
We don’t want this. We also don’t want to hurt our parents or slight our siblings. We don’t want it to seem as though we’re merely casting our son into the hands of casual acquaintances who will callously see to it that all ties to his blood relatives are severed (which is one of my father’s ominous scenarios). Part of me wants to keep silent about our choice, provided my father, aunt, and uncle can manage to do the same. I’m even tempted to write each sister a poignant letter to be opened upon my death, thereby avoiding any tension or potential rifts. However, while this approach has seemed to work in the Hollywood universe, something tells me that it won’t in reality.
Instead, I’m hoping our families will see that our friends are already fantastically in love with Felix. Plus, they’re similar to us in many ways, sharing the same interests, values and worldview as we do. These similarities are important, because Patrick and I hope to raise our son to be enthusiastic and mindful, and whatever else he’s got it in him to be. If we can’t, his guardians (along with our families) will do it for us.
Of course, we know that things might change. Our friends could die or get divorced, go insane or move to Australia in search of the great white crocodile. Or, in a few years, one of our siblings may become a better choice of guardian, and in that case, we’ll revise our decision. But for now, we’re getting ready for the next ten minutes. The world’s a thorny place, and the roads are lousy with bad drivers.