The legal differences between Godparents and guardians

  • Insight

20 February 2017

It is becoming increasingly popular for celebrities to choose fellow A-listers as their child’s Godparents.

The Beckhams have been renowned for celebrity Godparents with Eva Longoria the Godmother to their daughter, Harper, and Elton John Godfather to their son, Brooklyn. David Beckham himself is a Godparent of Liv Tyler’s son, Sailor. The celebrity Godparent is a long-standing trend – check out our who’s who of celebrity Godparents below. 

But, whilst it would undoubtedly be “cool” for most to be like Sailor and have Golden Balls as his Godfather, what does this role mean legally in Scotland?

The role of the Godparent

Historically, Godparents were a Christian tradition with Godparents vowing to teach that child about Christianity. Today this is, perhaps, not so much the case as it would be surprising if Elton John, a man who has been quoted as saying that he would ban religion completely, was selected by the Beckhams to teach Brooklyn the workings of the Christian faith.

There is also an increasing trend these days of naming ceremonies, rather than Christenings, which may allude to a changing role of the traditional Godparent – so what is that role?

Godparents can play an important role in a child’s life and being asked to be a Godparent is a great honour. In most cases, Godparents are probably chosen as the people that the child’s parents trust fully with their child and consider an appropriate person to link to their child to.

In some cases godparents are chosen with a view to the godparent or godparents assuming the role of the child’s parents if the event of the parents dying during childhood. We hear on a regular basis the adage, ‘if I die, my friend as Godparent will get my child’. This is, however, a misleading concept.  Parents should always be aware that the selection of a Godparent does not have the legal effect they often thought it would.

In Scotland, the assumption of the role of Godparent does not confer any legal responsibilities and rights to the godchild and as such, if the natural parents were to die, the Godparents would not automatically assume responsibility for the child.

Godparent v Guardian – what is the difference?

Should the worst happen to a parent of a child during childhood, the law reverts to that parent’s legal writings in the first instance. It is, therefore, essential that you make provision for the care of your child by appointing a guardian in conjunction with drafting your will. A guardian can only be appointed by a parent with parental responsibilities and rights so these must acquired first if they are not already held. It should also be noted that in this context we are discussing guardians appointed to assume the role during that child’s childhood following one or both parents passing away; not guardians appointed in respect of adults with incapacity.

The guardian, if of course willing to accept, would then don the parental responsibilities and rights in respect of the child which were previously held by the deceased parent, thus usurping anyone chosen as a Godparent.

A guardian has no place to act whilst both parents are alive. However, should one parent die, they would have an opportunity to assume responsibility for the child, even if the other parent is still alive. This is relevant where, perhaps, a couple are separated and on the death of one parent, the named guardian does not think it is in the child’s best interests to reside with the surviving parent; for example, that parent may live abroad and the child has had limited contact with them; perhaps that parent has been absent for all the child’s life; or in some cases the surviving parent’s lifestyle may not be one suitable for a child to live in. In those circumstances a guardian could apply to the Court for parental responsibilities and rights to, for example, seek an order to have the child reside with them permanently.

It may well be the case that those chosen as Godparents are also appointed as guardians but to ensure your child is cared for as per your wishes in the event of untimely death, you should make specific provision for this. 

A review of your Will and the appointment of a guardian is especially important after the birth of a child. You should also regularly review your intentions throughout as relationships and circumstances change. Not only this, but your child will develop his/her own strong bonds with family members and your friends. As this happens, more appropriate Guardians may come to the fore.

The Who’s Who of Celebrity Godparents

  • U2 star Bono is Godparent to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s twins. 
  • Aretha Franklin was Whitney Houston’s Godmother.  
  • Dolly Parton is Godmother to Miley Cyrus. 
  • Friends Star Jennifer Aniston is Godmother to co-star Courtney Cox’s daughter Coco.
  • No less than seven people are presently assuming the role of Godparent to the future King, Prince George.
  • Queen Victoria was Godparent to over 50 godchildren (45 of whom were named Victoria or Victor).

Further information

If you want to speak to someone about the role of a guardian, contact David Coutts in our Family Law team or if you wish to review the terms of your Will, contact Russell Laughland in our Private Client department – we will leave the Godparent honours list to you!