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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What to Know During the Guardianship Nomination Process

What to Know During the Guardianship Nomination Process

If something happened to you and you were unable to take care of yourself or your children, who would step in? Ideally, it would be someone you chose. Nominating a guardian before something happens allows you to do just that.

What Is a Guardian?

Think back to school forms asking for a parent or legal guardian. A guardian is a person who takes care of someone else when that person is incompetent to handle their affairs on their own. This could be due to a serious injury or illness. When minor children are involved, they may need a guardian if both of their parents are incapacitated or pass away.

A guardianship will generally cover similar decisions to what a parent could make for a child — even when the person needing a guardian is an adult. This may include medical decisions and, for minors, other life decisions such as where to go to school.

Guardianships can also cover managing the person’s finances, but finances are sometimes broken up into a separate conservatorship. Exactly what a guardian or conservator can do will be spelled out when the court approves the guardianship or conservatorship.

How Is a Guardian Different From Godparents?

When your children were born or shortly after, you may have appointed godparents. Godparents are often expected to step in and take charge of the children if something happens to a parent, but appointing a godparent is largely a religious or ceremonial action. Godparents aren’t directly recognized under the law.

To give a godparent the legal authority to act, and avoid conflicts with other family members who may wish to step in instead, you will need to go through the legal process of appointing the godparents as guardians, trustees, or other legal roles.

How Is a Guardian Different from a Power of Attorney?

A power of attorney might grant all of the powers that a guardian can exercise. The difference is mainly timing. You sign a power of attorney when you have full mental capacity. A guardian is only appointed after you’re incapacitated. Part of the guardianship appointment process can include reviewing the wishes you specified when you still had full mental capacity. However, a power of attorney cannot be executed if you have diminished mental capacity, and it may be voided if a court finds you lacked capacity when you signed it.

Because a power of attorney can be limited in scope based on how you had your lawyer word it, it may not cover all of the actions that need to be taken on your behalf. In those situations, a guardian would be appointed to fill in the gaps.

How Do You Select a Guardian for Yourself?

Like a person dying without a complete will, the law has default rules for how to select a guardian based on relationships and willingness to serve. The court will also consider the ability to do the job of each person who wants to be the guardian. This can lead to serious family conflicts and large legal bills when two family members wish to serve as the guardian and can’t come to an agreement.

To avoid these types of problems, you can nominate a guardian. The judge isn’t bound to follow your nomination but will give it great weight and will only overrule your nomination with a strong cause. The process is called nomination of guardian, and you can select any adult of sound mind. Like a will, the judge will review your selection to ensure you were mentally fit to make the decision and weren’t under duress or tricked into doing so.

How Do You Select a Guardian for Your Children?

The process for nominating a guardian for your children is similar to nominating a guardian for yourself. The only real difference is that it’s even more important to make your decision in advance so that your children can have a sense of stability and not be left hanging during long court battles.

You should, of course, also talk to potential guardians to see if they are willing to take on this responsibility. However, being nominated does not obligate the person to accept the judge’s appointment if the time ever comes. Therefore, you probably want to select at least one alternate.

Do You Need a Guardian If You Left a Trust for Your Children?

You may have set up a trust to provide for your children financially in case something happened to you. The trustee is then able to manage their financial affairs in accordance with the trust.

However, someone still needs to take custody of the children to manage their daily lives and important life decisions. This is where you need to nominate a guardian, and your estate planning documents should lay out the responsibilities of both the trustee and the guardian.

Who Supervises a Guardian?

Once appointed, a guardian must make regular reports to the court. This includes financial information as well as other major decisions. Other family members can also go to court to contest the guardianship if they believe the guardian is doing something improper.

What If There Is a Conflict Between a Guardianship and a Power of Attorney or Trust?

There should be no conflicts with a guardianship and power of attorney or trust because the court should appoint the guardian in consideration of other estate planning documents. The guardian should only carry out duties not already provided for. To avoid confusion, you should attach your other estate planning documents to your nomination of guardianship to ensure that the judge will be aware of their existence. If a power of attorney or trustee believes a guardian was appointed improperly or is going beyond their role, they can contest those actions in court.

Are There Downsides to Being a Guardian?

Whether a guardianship is for an adult or minor children, being appointed as a guardian is a major responsibility. Like a parent, it can mean making tough choices and sometimes needing to put the other person’s wellbeing before the guardian’s own. The nominated guardian will also need to go to court during the nomination process and will need to make ongoing reports to the court as long as they remain guardian. Being a guardian is a lifetime appointment unless the judge appoints someone else.

Does a Guardian Have to be Local?

A guardian can theoretically live anywhere in the world. However, the judge will want to make sure that the guardian will be able to effectively perform their responsibilities without being unduly impacted by long-distance. For minor children, since they will often go to live with the guardian, the judge may also consider how a move would impact their lives and their access to other family members. You can and should include your wishes on these issues in your planning documents so the judge can understand the choices you made and to avoid conflicts between family members.

If you’re relying on a long-distance guardian, you should also consider who will act in a sudden emergency such as you being rushed to a hospital. You may want to have an alternate power of attorney that gives a more nearby family member the power to act until your guardian is able to step in.

Who Pays for Legal Fees During Guardianship Proceedings?

Your appointed guardian should understand that they don’t have to take on legal costs. If you have liquid assets, the court will pay the attorneys reasonable fees from your funds — just like any other of your expenses would be handled. If you don’t have liquid assets, there is a special guardianship fund established by the government. In no cases does the appointed guardian pay for court fees, although you may wish to set aside money to cover other expenses they may face while acting as a guardian.

Please note that this is separate from creating your nomination of guardian documents. Those costs would be arranged between you and your attorney just like any other legal work.

How Quickly Can a Guardian Be Appointed?

Even for a nominated guardian who isn’t contested, the court process is usually measured in weeks if not months. During an emergency situation, your family could petition the court to appoint a temporary guardian pending full court review. This person could potentially be the guardian you nominated.

In more urgent circumstances, such as an emergency room doctor needing an immediate decision, any power of attorney or living will documents that you created and are readily available will be used. Otherwise, the hospital or other entity would attempt to contact your next of kin and follow their authority in accordance with local law.

Talk to an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney

To learn more about how nominating a guardian fits in with your estate planning strategy or to start the nomination process, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney at Lilac City Law today.

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