What is a Ward of the Court?

What is a Ward of the Court?

People essentially become wards of the court because they are unable to take care of themselves at some level and require certain legal protections.

This legal designation is also commonly called being a “ward of the state” and may apply to minors as well as adults. It’s also important to understand that a ward is not necessarily someone who has no family or support system within the community. Rather, they may require enhanced protections beyond what a legal guardian or family can provide. Other salient issues involve otherwise responsible legal guardians not wanting to bear the sometimes onerous financial burden associated with minor children or adults who unable to maintain self-care.

To say that the process and issues involving wards of the court are complicated would be something of an understatement. In an effort to provide loved ones with a working understanding of what it means to be a ward of the court, we hope the following overview proves useful.

How Does One Become an Adult Ward of the Court?

As we are acutely aware, not all adults have the ability to care for themselves adequately. Whether that stems from a disability, age, or illness, the courts can provide enhanced protections to ensure ongoing treatment, care, and financial oversight, among other items.

An adult ward of the court may have no remaining family members to step up as a legal guardian. Others may indeed have loved ones that are willing to act as their guardian but are not necessarily in a position to shoulder burdens such as financial support as well as caregiving. Still, other wards have court-appointed guardians connected with government agencies. These professional organizations may include the following.

  • Social Services
  • Human Services
  • Mental Health Agencies
  • Health Departments
  • Departments for Aging Adults

In order to become an adult ward of the court, that person must undergo a review process that may include assessments by medical and psychiatric professionals who support a claim the person is not competent to successfully maintain minimum health, safety, and financial standards. In the vast majority of cases, the courts will hold a hearing and secure written and oral testimony from experts, friends, and family members, among others. If deemed incompetent, the individual may enjoy the legal protections afforded by the court.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the courts do not necessarily impose guardianships. People who recognize they are seeing the signs of diminished capacity to maintain their health, well-being, and estates, can work with an attorney to voluntarily petition the court. In these instances, the potential ward of the court can have substantial input about the parameters of the guardianship and who the court appoints to that station.

In other cases, a friend or family member can petition the court on someone’s behalf, even in cases of involuntary guardianships. These cases can be emotionally taxing for family members, particularly when your loved one does not recognize their failing state. In these involuntary cases, the ward generally has little or no input about issues such as oversight of their well-being or the designated guardian. The court imposes what it believes is in the best interest of the ward.

What Does an Adult Guardian Do?

A court-appointed guardian is often tasked with overseeing healthcare and financial planning decisions. It’s not uncommon for the guardian to work closely with the ward through the process and move forward with the person’s full consent. These are common items a guardian works with the ward.  

  • Place of Residency
  • Mental Health Treatments
  • Physical Health Treatments
  • Bill Payments
  • Personal Affairs
  • Estate Planning
  • Last Will & Testament

If the ward has significant financial resources, the court may also appoint a conservator with some expertise to manage their estate. The guardian, on the other hand, advocates on behalf of the ward’s best interest in all other matters and generally submits periodic reports to the court.

How Long Can an Adult Remain a Ward of the Court?

Once a person has been deemed a ward of the court, that legal designation is usually only removed in the event they are no longer hindered. In some instances, the court may dismiss the guardianship because it’s in the person’s best interest. Although the latter tends not to be the norm, people who have recovered from a physical or mental health condition may see the ward designation lifted, and the guardianship discontinued. In the overwhelming majority of cases, wards of the court remain so until they pass away.

When Does A Minor Child Become A Ward of the Court?

When children are deemed wards of the court, the circumstances and prevailing issues can be quite different. For example, when the court appoints a legal guardian, it is more often not the case that they become financially responsible for support. In these cases, guardians are also not generally liable for other expenses associated with the child. However, when children become wards of the court, parental rights are usually terminated.

This is an important distinction for minors and parents alike to understand. That’s because there are instances when the court may assume authority over the child even though the minor remains in the custody of a parent. In this scenario, the court has asserted some degree of authority but has not yet gone as far as to remove parental oversight. In such cases, minors are not necessarily a legal ward of the court.

That same reasoning holds true in cases when minors work with an attorney to successfully petition the court to be declared emancipated. Although such minors are no longer under the legal control or protection of a parent or guardian, they are not automatically under the court’s protection either. Therefore, they do not meet the legal standard of a ward of the court.

Another compelling situation is when minors commit crimes and are incarcerated. The mere fact that the state has assumed control and placed the child in a correctional facility does not necessarily make them a ward of the court. As long as a parent or appointed guardian is in place, the minor may not be considered a ward.  

What Triggers A Minor Becoming a Ward of the Court?

Like the adult process, there are a number of ways that a child can go from being the responsibility of a parent to a ward of the court. Sadly, ranked among the more prevalent pathways, the court places children under its protection when they are neglected, abused, or otherwise mistreated. We hear and read about many extreme cases in the media of children being subjected to squalor, malnutrition, and other horrors. The legal protections of the court are often inserted until the children can be treated, and a suitable living environment can be secured.

In other cases, the court may proactively take control over wayward youths. It’s not unusual for a minor with a growing criminal record, history of drug and alcohol abuse, or mental health issues to be removed from a parent’s custody. Wards may be placed in institutional settings that include rehabilitative programs. The court’s goal in cases of wayward youths is to redirect negative behaviors and integrate them as productive members of the community.

There are also cases when parents are physically or mentally unable to provide the stable homelife a child requires. Whether that evolves from diminished physical health or an emerging mental condition, parents have the option to work with an attorney and petition the court to place their child under its protection. Parents are often required to sign over custody in voluntary petitions. In these types of cases, parents can have significant input regarding placement and the future well-being of their child. It’s also not unusual for parents to regain their capacity to care for a child and ask the court to reinstate their rights.

Protect Your Loved One’s Rights & Interests

If you or a loved one is facing the possibility of becoming a ward of the court, or you fear for how guardianship will transpire in a known or unknown future scenario, it’s imperative that you engage the best legal counsel possible. The legal hurdles, hearings, and documentation required to negotiate the process tend to be highly complicated. And, missteps can cause unexpected setbacks and a less than desirable result. Whether you are considering an adult wardship, or want to protect a minor child’s future, Lilac City Law has the experience and compassion to diligently guide you through the process and get the outcome you deserve.

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How To Prevent My Child from Becoming a Ward of the Court

How To Prevent My Child from Becoming a Ward of the Court

If something happens to you and you’re unable to care for your children, the court system may step in. Making a child a ward of the court is only a last resort. If you’ve already made other arrangements, the court system would prefer to honor those arrangements as long as they account for your children’s best interests.

What is a Ward of the Court?

A ward of the court is a child who is under the care of the court system. The court monitors the child’s education, healthcare, finances, and other needs. The court may appoint a guardian for the child, or the child may be placed into foster care.

When Can a Child Become a Ward of the Court?

A child can become a ward of the court when their parents are unable to care for them. This can happen involuntarily in cases of abuse or neglect. In an estate planning context, it may be due to the death of the parents or an incapacitating illness or injury.

This process isn’t ideal for the children or their families, so it’s only used as a backup plan. If there are other arrangements, such as a nominated guardian who has the financial ability to care for the child, the court would rather entrust the care of the child to that person under the court’s supervision rather than having the state take responsibility for the child.

What Happens if Something Happens to the Parents?

If a child’s parents suffer a sudden accident or injury, a number of legal processes will begin. If the parents never return to pick up their children at school or some other location, the adults there will try to reach the emergency contacts the parents previously provided. If they can’t reach any family members or friends to take temporary care of the child, they may notify police or child protective services.

While the preferred option is to get the children with someone they know as quickly as possible, that is only a temporary solution. Without prior planning by the parents, they won’t have the legal authority to make important decisions for the children or even to maintain custody without a separate court process.

If there is no one willing or able to take care of the children, they may be brought to a shelter or placed into foster care.

Can a Parent Stop a Child from Becoming a Ward of the Court?

If you’re charged with abuse or neglect, you have due process rights to protect your parental rights and can work with an attorney who practices in that area to maintain custody. If you die or become incapacitated, it’s simply impossible to go to court and fight for your children. Since it’s this latter scenario that you’re trying to prevent through estate planning, the only way to prevent your child from becoming a ward of the court is to plan ahead.

How to Decide Who Takes Care of Your Children

If you want to decide who takes care of your children instead of having a court do it, there are a few steps you need to take.

Update Your Emergency Contacts

Schools, daycares, and anyone else who takes care of your children for the day will usually ask for a list of people who are authorized to pick up your children. This should include who should pick them up in an emergency when you can’t be reached. Your children should also know the name and phone number of a relative or close friend to call in an emergency.

Keep in mind this is just a temporary arrangement. Even if your selected person is willing to care for your children indefinitely, they won’t have legal authority to make decisions for them at the doctor, school, bank, or other important places.

Nominate a Guardian

A more permanent solution is to nominate a guardian. A guardian takes full care of your children with the same authority of a parent. While the court technically selects the guardian, it will honor a parent’s wishes as long as the nominated guardian is suitable. If your chosen guardian lives out of state, you may wish to also nominate a local temporary or backup guardian until the permanent guardian can arrive or your family can arrange for the children to move to the permanent guardian.

Create a Power of Attorney

You can also create a power of attorney for your children. This is similar to a guardianship in that you can grant your selected agent full authority to do anything you could, but it’s more temporary. A power of attorney can help in cases of temporary illness or if something happens to one parent while the other is traveling away from home.

Appoint a Conservator

A conservator is similar to a guardian but only handles financial affairs while another guardian handles everything else. Some parents worry about a guardian misusing assets the parents left for their children’s benefit. While courts do monitor guardians, some financial abuses can go unnoticed by the court if another family member isn’t aware to bring it to the court’s attention. Appointing a separate conservator provides a more direct form of oversight.

How to Provide for Your Children Financially

When courts are reviewing who will care for children, they consider financial means. A family member who you would like to be the guardian may not have the income or assets needed to raise your children. While the guardian generally doesn’t legally have personal liability for childcare expenses, your children do need some source of money in order to not become wards of the court. You have several options to achieve this.

Life Insurance

Life insurance is one of the easiest ways to provide for your children. You can buy a policy that covers your future earnings or what you would have spent to raise them including college costs. You can name your children as beneficiaries, or have the money go into a trust on their behalf.

Will

You can also use your will to leave money to your children. Creating a will is a simple step, but it isn’t without pitfalls. A will has to go through probate, and if you have debts, your creditors may be entitled to repayment before your heirs receive anything. A will also provides the lowest degree of control over how the money you leave is spent.

Trust

A trust with your children as the beneficiary holds assets to your benefit during your life and then automatically transfers them to your children upon your death. Some of the major benefits of using a trust are that you can set it up to hold money until your children reach a certain age or to be used for a specific purpose.

Durable Financial Power of Attorney

You should also prepare for a long-term illness or other incapacitation. Life insurance, wills, and trusts only work after death. If you are still alive, your family will need the legal authority to access your funds to use for your children.

A durable power of attorney kicks in on a triggering event you specify such as your hospitalization. You can give your power of attorney access to your checking account, or you can maintain a separate savings account with funds for your children in case of an emergency. To the extent you have funds available, this guarantees money will be available for your children regardless of your family’s willingness or ability to cover their expenses.

What Do You to With Your Plan?

Once you have a plan in place, make sure the right people know about it. Keep copies of everything with your other important documents, and tell your family where to find them. Anyone you select to care for your children should have their own copies to present to legal authorities if needed.

In addition, give age-appropriate information to your children. This can be as simple as telling a toddler to call grandma if you don’t answer or telling an older child their uncle will take care of them if anything ever happens to you. After a certain age, this can actually be comforting to children who may have seen movies about orphans and have their own worries about becoming wards of the court.

Get Help from an Attorney

Preventing your child from becoming a ward of the court requires proactive planning. To make sure you don’t miss anything and everything will work as you expect, talk to an estate planning attorney at Lilac City Law. Contact us now to schedule a consultation.

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