By Andrew Zashin*

This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.

Do you have minor children? Do you know what would happen to them if you were to pass away unexpectedly? This is never a pleasant topic to think about, but it is one of the most important estate planning decisions you can make.

Depending on your specific situation, the answer may be obvious. If a minor loses one parent, most often the surviving parent would simply assume custody. If the parents are divorced, or if they were never married, the domestic relations or juvenile courts may need to get involved depending on formal parenting plans that may already be in place. But from a legal perspective, it may be a simple matter.

On the other hand, if the surviving parent is estranged, unfit, or otherwise not around or uninvolved, the answer could become more complex. In that case, it may be necessary to seek the appointment of a “guardian.”

In general, anyone with some ties to the child could apply in the appropriate probate court to become the child’s guardian. Once appointed, that guardian would be expected to care for the child’s well-being just as a parent would, providing food, shelter, and clothing, and ensuring schooling and medical care. If the child has any assets, a guardian would be expected to manage those on behalf of the child as well.

In Ohio, as in many states, a person can be named as the guardian “of the person” or the guardian “of the estate.” A guardian of the person would be responsible for providing necessities and care and for decision-making regarding the child’s health and well-being, while a guardian of the estate would be tasked with management of the minor’s financial affairs, such as managing monies held in trust for the child. One person could feasibly fulfill both roles, or a different person might fulfill each. And, if the child has no significant assets, there may be no need for a guardian of the estate to be appointed at all.

Ideally, your wishes as to who should serve as your child’s guardian, and maybe a “backup,” or successor, guardian will be spelled out in your will. A probate court would not be required to follow a guardianship designation made in a will, but generally would, so long as that designation is in the interest of your child. It is also important to understand that just because you choose to name someone does not obligate them to accept the responsibility; they could decline to serve in that capacity.

For these reasons, it is important to consider carefully who you would trust with such responsibility and, ideally, discuss in advance if he or she would be willing to take on the job should it become necessary. If a significant inheritance or other monies could be involved, consider who you believe would handle those funds appropriately and in a manner that you would be satisfied with. And, if you have a spouse or co-parent, it is very important to discuss with him or her the identity of a successor guardian in the – however unlikely – event that neither of you would be around to care for your child. Any disputes will likely ultimately be resolved by a court, and it is far better to tackle this issue in advance via a clear and concise estate plan, rather than in a court of law after legal challenges.