Dying While You Still Have Minor Children
By: Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
January 27, 2015
If you’re a parent, your children probably mean the world to you. The last thing you want to think about is what will happen to them in the event of your death. But an even scarier thought is what might happen to them if they are left in the hands of someone you don’t trust.
Few parents envision their passing occurring while their children are still young. They neglect to create a will that names a trusted guardian for their minor children in the event of their death, someone who will care for them and manage their children’s inherited assets.
If something does happen to the parents while their children are still minors, Florida law will appoint a guardian ad litem to administer their care and finances. In such cases, a judge who has never met you or your children will be charged with deciding your children’s fate in this regard.
While the courts will make every effort to choose the best guardian to protect your children’s interests, sometimes the person they appoint does not share your values or is unable to responsibly manage their assets. This is exactly what happened with the Petersons.
The Best Guardian Isn’t Always the Obvious One
Henry and Molly Peterson were a young, happily married couple with two young children—Mark and Julie. As parents, the Petersons valued family, learning, and health above all else. They were model parents who encouraged and supported their kids in everything they did. That’s why it was so devastating when they both passed away in a car accident while their son and daughter were both still in middle school.
Since Henry and Molly never even imagined the possibility of dying so young, they hadn’t even begun to think about creating a last will and testament—they always thought they had plenty of time to do that at some later point in the future. This left the Florida courts with the difficult task of distributing their property among their heirs pursuant to the statutes (laws of intestate succession). But an even harder task for the courts was deciding who would take care of Mark and Julie, the assets left behind, and the money designated for their care.
The Peterson’s had both come from small families. Their closest surviving relative was Henry’s brother, Frank. Frank and Molly’s best friend, Sophie, both came forward to ask for guardianship of the surviving children.
With no other way of deciding, the court ruled to give priority to the children’s closest blood relative, Frank, and awarded guardianship of the two children to him. This meant that Frank was not only responsible for their care, but he was also responsible the money and assets that their parents had left behind.
Frank had a good heart, but had very little experience raising children. He worked late, and allowed the kids to play video games for hours and watch violent movies—something their parents had never allowed them to do. Frank brought home unhealthy take-out food every night for dinner, and was rarely around to help them with their homework. He wasn’t a whiz at managing funds either, and by the time the two kids graduated, there wasn’t much money left for their college tuition.
Fortunately for the Peterson kids, Molly’s friend Sophie remained a constant presence in their life, babysitting them when Frank went out, cooking wholesome, homemade meals, and helping them with their school work. Thanks to Sophie’s influence—coupled with the values instilled in them at a young age by their parents—Mark and Julie were able to secure scholarships to top colleges.
Leave Your Children in the Hands of Someone You Trust
Frank might have been the most obvious option for the guardianship position as the children’s closest blood relative, but many would argue Sophie would have been a much better choice. Only Henry and Molly, who knew their children best, could have made this decision.
Had they left behind a last will and testament, the Petersons could have appointed the guardian they trusted most, and left clear instructions on how to manage their funds.
That’s why it’s so important for all adults—young and old, healthy and ill—to prepare an effective estate plan now rather than later. Without an estate plan in place, remaining property will be distributed to surviving relatives by statute. Courts will decide who will be charged with care for precious minor children. While the courts will try to protect the children’s best interest and appoint a suitable surviving relative for the job, a judge is unable to make the informed and loving decision their parent would have made. Don’t leave this up to chance – plan for your kids’ future now by creating an estate plan.
Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
Strategic Planning With Purpose
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