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What, Exactly, Is a Godparent?

By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

If you're a news junkie, a couple of recent items may have left you asking yourself, "What the heck is a godparent, anyway?"

First are the recent revelations about the insistence of Prince Harry and the former Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, to keep secret the identities of their two young children's godparents. Harry's brother, Prince William, has reportedly been "perplexed" by the royal couple's decision to break from centuries of tradition, and he's not alone.

Second are recent reports that Catholic officials in Sicily are also ordering breaks from longstanding tradition involving the naming of godparents. The Catholic Diocese of Catania enacted a three-year ban on the ancient tradition of naming godparents at baptisms, starting this month.

The church said that the original purpose for naming godparents — to serve as religious mentors for children — has lost its spiritual significance, instead becoming "a networking opportunity for families looking to improve their fortunes."

A Long History

Godparents have existed almost as long as Christianity has, and they have played important roles within the church. Renunciation of the devil is central to baptismal ceremonies. And since infants can't speak for themselves, godparents did it for them — and still do.

Over time, however, the role of the godparent in churches became more akin to that of mentors who serve as trusted spiritual and ethical guides for young people.

But in recent decades, the proportion of the U.S. population that is white and Christian has declined by nearly a third, according to the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. And with the decline in numbers, traditional practices like godparenting have also declined.

At the same time, there's been increasing interest in "secular godparenting" completely outside any religious setting.

So, has naming a godparent for one's child become the same thing as naming a legal guardian? The answer is no.

Although their status may be changing, godparents still fulfill only religious or cultural roles, not legal ones. Legal guardians, by contrast, can step in to become caretakers for children if parents become unavailable and make all practical decisions about housing and day-to-day life for them.

Parents may wish to take legal steps to name godparents as legal guardians if they can no longer care for their children. If both parents draw up wills and name a godparent as a preferred legal guardian, it's likely that the court will accept them. Also, some states allow parents to name godparents as guardians through a different process, sometimes called a "parental appointment of a guardian."

But even if parents don't take those kinds of legal steps, the existence of godparents can be legally helpful if parents can no longer care for their children. Massachusetts estate planning attorney Leanna Hamill says that the court may use the selection of a godparent to help determine the parents' wishes regarding guardianship.

If your children do have good godparents who you think could also be good guardians someday, you might give the idea some extra thought. Just because someone is an affectionate godparent doesn't mean they necessarily possess the organizational and financial skills that are desirable in a guardian.

But if you think it could work, perhaps it's a good idea to discuss it with an estate planning attorney in your area.

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