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 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.
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.
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.