Monday, July 26, 2010

If Anything Happens to Me...

This week, I'm boarding a plane for Atlanta to speak at the National Book Club Conference. I'm leaving Thursday and I'll be gone for four days.

Travel is always a mixed bag experience for me. On the one hand, it's good to get out, to meet readers and fellow writers. After all, writing can be a very solitary occupation and it's nice to get out of the house. But as good as it is to interact with others, leaving town for a few day always raises the issue of my fear of flying... and of dying.

Perhaps "fear" is too strong a word. "Unease" might be more accurate, since unlike those who are desperately, pathologically afraid, I will actually get on airplanes. And while I'm in no rush to meet my Maker, I accept that day comes when it comes. Still any time I fly, I double check my final arrangements. Will? Power of attorney? Everything still in the safe? Check, check and check.

By now, my blended, multiracial should be used to the pre-flight rituals of my telling them repeatedly that I love them, reminding them where all to find my email aliases and passwords and other, few pitiful "secrets" I have. And then for Kevin and Sierra, there's the "if anything happens to me" conversation.

This is not just neurosis on my part: the issue is real. In Maryland, like most states, as a step-parent, Kevin has no right to maintain custody over Sisi if something were to happen to me. Instead, her biological father would be assumed to have custody over her in the event of my death. Although my will can state my wishes for who should raise Sisi, a court would not be bound by that stipulation. Instead, a determination would be made according to the "best interest of the child" standard. Because she's a teenager, in the event of a dispute for custody between Kevin and her biological dad, Sisi's preferences would be given a greater weight than a younger child's-- but even that might not win the day.

All of this assumes a controversy... and my hope is that everyone would agree that the best and least disruptive thing to do in the event of my unfortunate demise would be for Sisi to remain with Kevin and Lil Bit. They have been her family for the past five years. Before that, it was just the two of us for five years. She only lived with her Dad for a few years when she was very small and these days visits only once a year. Her friends, her school and her favorite activities are all here. Uprooting her to live with her father in Florida at this point in her life would probably not be the best of ideas. I know because she told me so. Much as she loves her dad, she does NOT want to move to Florida.

Her biological father agrees she belongs here, with me, her mother. But I can't help but wonder if his feelings would change if something were to happen to me. Unexpected changes in circumstances have been known to challenge our ideas about what is the right course of action. Might he feel differently if I were gone? Would it seem inappropriate then for the white guy I married to be raising his child?

As I began thinking about this trip, I asked Kevin once again what he'd do about Sisi if anything were to happen to me.

"She belongs here. She's a part of this family and I would fight for her if it comes to that," he said simply.

As much as I like to hear that, the truth is, if it came to a fight, Kevin would probably lose. Step-parents rarely win against biological parents, unless the biological parent is unfit. Usually, the child only gets to make the choice about with whom to live unless she's over 16. My lawyer friends tell me that the best shot a step-parent has to stay involved with a well-loved step-child is to set up a trust fund that the step-parent administers. That way, the step-parent can retain some contact on matters of the trust. We haven't done that and that's my next step-- just in case.

It's the "just in case" that's the point. Too many of us don't think about the unpleasant inevitability of our death. We'd rather not think through the "if anything happens to me" because it seems morbid or negative. We think if we don't talk about it, somehow that keeps it from happening.

But the "if anything happens to me" questions are important ones to answer-- not just for step-kids, but for all of our kids. And while, sometimes, expressing our final wishes won't guarantee the outcomes we'd like, it's usually a whole lot better to have something written down than nothing. Several of the legal websites like can help the average person draft a simple will or power of attorney easily and at relatively low cost-- but even a letter, signed and witnessed, expressing who you believe would be the best guardian for your children will provide your survivors (and the court, if it comes to that) with guidance.

It's something to think about, if you haven't already. Airplane rides remind me of the fragility of life-- but the truth is none of us know our appointed hour. Providing for the custody and care of our children isn't morbid-- it's just another way of loving them.

And thanks for reading this blog. I want you to know I appreciate you-- just in case anything happens to me!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent advice Karyn! Everything you've said is painfully true, I hope that people will be moved to act after reading this Blog. I spent a couple years working as a Court recorder in the NJ Chancery/Surrogate Court Division and the cases that I witnessed would bring tears to your eyes. A large majority of trial cases were based on Wills that either could not be found or contradictions over what a loved one wanted because the deceased never created a Will.

    Children are the most vulnerable when they lose a parent - it is paramount that parents safe guard them by creating a binding & legal Will that will communicate what is best for their child. Believe me you do not want to leave decisions about your child's future in the hands of a stranger (a judge) who will be making decisions based on state or case law, period! In these situations someone always has to lose…