Godparent vs guardian: Debunking the myths
You're not alone if you thought the roles were one and the same, but not knowing the difference holds massive consequences for your child's future. Here a legal expert provides need-to-know information.
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We’re still unsure about whether godparenting is a thing of the past, a still-going-strong tradition or soon to be replaced by the more modern PANK (professional aunt, no kids) or PUNK (the uncle version), but it’s certain that there may exist some longstanding confusion about what being a godparent actually means. 

Godparents

Somewhere along the line, the term "godparent" has been misunderstood to mean legal guardian, and according to David Thomson, the senior legal adviser at Sanlam Trust, the confusion could lead to unwanted consequences for all concerned, especially your child. 

“A godparent is essentially a spiritual role because its origins are religious. Although there might be cultural variations, the role today is largely a symbolic one,” explains David. 

So who is going to look after your child then? 

Now that you know what a godparent is not, David advises that parents start giving serious thought about who they would trust to take care of their children. 

“Considering who you would like to appoint as legal guardian to your child should something happen to you is therefore a serious process. You want to be sure that they will care for your child in the way you intended,” he notes. 

Guardianship of your children

Here are some frequently asked questions David has come across, along with his advice. 

How is a legal guardian appointed?

If you would like to nominate someone, this should be done when you put your Will together. But the process will only be binding if the nomination is accepted by the nominee.

If the unthinkable occurs, your child’s chosen guardian will be appointed by the Master of the High Court. The person will then be legally responsible for decisions like where your child will live, their education and general care until they turn 18, or until they are able to take care of themselves. 

Exactly what does being a guardian entail?

It’s important to note the two types of guardianship, which may change your nominee’s decision to accept the role. You’ll need to explain the difference carefully since one of these will have serious financial consequences for the person who agrees to be your child's legal guardian.  

When someone agrees to be a guardian, they will be notified of two options. The Master of the High Court is required to issue Letters of Tutorship or Curatorship.

  • A Tutor is defined as a person who is authorised to take care of a child and their assets.
  • A Curator only takes care of the assets of a minor child.

This is why it’s important to take the person you nominate through the fine details from the very beginning. 

If the person agrees to be both Tutor and Curator, they are fully responsible to provide support to your child until they turn 18. 

And there is always the possibility for the obligation to stretch beyond the age of 18 because if your child does not have enough money to complete their studies and is still unemployed, the guardian will have to keep supporting the child. So, you can see why it is vital for your nominee to really think about whether they are right for the role. 

How should parents choose a guardian?

When thinking about who could be the best potential legal guardian for your child, the following should be taken into account:

  • While relatives might seem like an obvious choice, this isn’t always the right option if your child doesn’t have a close relationship with them. A close family friend who your child is used to and possibly has children of a similar age and personality might be a better choice. The compatibility with the children is the most important. 
  • While you need to arrange for funds to care for and educate your child in your Will, it's strongly advisable to make sure the person you nominate as guardian is financially sound with enough resources to ‘absorb’ your child into their family. 
  • If your child is already a teenager, you should talk to them about this. You are making a critical decision that will determine their future, so it is important that the child is involved in the process.
  • The guardian should also be a person who shares your values and spiritual beliefs – the least disruption to your child’s routine, the better.
  • Whenever you review your Will or discuss it with your partner or financial adviser, you should consider the financial and emotional well-being of your nominated guardian and carefully consider if they are a good fit. If the nominated guardian is not in a position to look after your child anymore, you should seriously consider nominating a new guardian.

Thomson recommends appointing the services of a trusted financial adviser to assist with drawing up the best financial plan that provides for your child. 

Thinking about a future where your child doesn't have you in their lives is scary and something no parent wants to imagine, but covering all the bases of our children’s lives is just another part of being a parent and is well worth the effort and money spent to do so. 

Have you gone through the process of nominating a legal guardian for your child? Did they say yes or did it take a few tries to find someone who would take on the role? Tell us by emailing to chatback@parent24.com and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous.  

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