Many divorcing parents put their estate planning issues on the back burner as part of their post-divorce “to do” list. Divorcing parents with minor children or children with special needs, however, may wish to include a guardian nomination provision within their divorce agreement. Guardian nomination provisions are not required by the Court as part of the divorce agreement, and are therefore seldom seen, but having the conversation prior to the divorce and memorializing the couple’s agreed-upon wishes is an easy way to protect the children from a potential nightmare down the road.
Most divorcing couples are primarily focused on the immediate issue of transforming a single family unit into separate lives: division of assets and liabilities, transitioning to two households, and creating the parenting plan. These issues contemplate the parents living apart, with the issue of the death of one parent arising primarily in the context of a triggering event for the termination of financial support. The care of the children in the event of the death of both parents is usually not part of the typical divorce discussion. In out-of-Court divorce processes such as Mediation or Collaborative Law Practice these type of additional discussions are encouraged.
So what happens to the children if both divorced parents die? As with an intact family, the parents’ relatives would probably go searching for a Last Will and Testament to see what the guardian designations are. With a married couple, whose estate planning was likely done together, the guardian nominations would be the same in both Wills.
For divorced parents, who each have their estate plans prepared separately post-divorce, the list of guardians in each Will may not overlap. Divorced parents frequently nominate guardians only from his or her own side of the family. There may be little or no discussion with the ex-spouse about who should raise the children. Differing guardian nominations can lead to a contested guardianship, including litigation, lawyer fees, and the time and expense associated with a contested Court process. Worst of all, after the child has lost both parents, the child's relatives are at war with each other. Their relationships may be irretrievably destroyed, and if no temporary guardianship is allowed by the Court, the child may remain in DCF custody and placed in a foster home pending the outcome of the guardianship case.
While this worst case scenario may not occur in every case, the potential for it is there if divorcing parents do not take the time to jointly consider who will raise their children if they are both deceased (or otherwise unavailable). Adding a clause to the divorce agreement to nominate guardians would help avoid the possibility of a contested guardianship.
Whether the divorce agreement includes a list of specific names or merely states the parents will confer post-divorce to agree on the nominees, the type of guardian nomination provision is far less important than the fact that there is one at all, demonstrating that the parents have contemplated the options for who will raise their children in the event they are not available to do it themselves.
*Beth is of counsel to Skylark Law & Mediation, PC and runs her own a solo law practice in Newtonville. Beth's practice includes family law & divorce representation, estate planning & probate, and GAL work.