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.

Contact

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

How Should I Plan for Temporary Guardianship in My Family Protection Plan?

How Should I Plan for Temporary Guardianship in My Family Protection Plan?

A temporary guardian assumes the role of a guardian for a limited amount of time. You may need sudden medical care, or if you’re no longer able to care for your children, you may need someone to step in while the permanent guardian prepares to take on their role. To ensure that everything goes smoothly, you should have a plan for this in your planning documents.

What is a Guardian?

A guardian is a person that makes important financial, medical, and other decisions for another. An adult may need a guardian if an illness or injury renders them unable to care for their own affairs either temporarily or permanently. A child may need a guardian if something happens to their parents so that the parents aren’t able to care for the child.

What is a Temporary Guardian?

Unlike many guardianships, which are indefinite, a temporary guardianship lasts for a specific amount of time or until a certain condition is met. Once the temporary guardianship ends, a permanent guardian takes over if one was nominated, other provisions of your estate plan take effect, or your family and a court reach a decision.

Here are some scenarios where a temporary guardian may come into play.

  • You live far away from family including who you would want to be your primary guardian. In the event of a sudden illness or accident, you designate a close friend to handle your affairs until your family member is able to arrive and take over.
  • You need a substitute in case your selected guardian has a change in circumstances that makes them temporarily or permanently unable to fulfill their duties.
  • You are a military spouse and need someone to take over if something happens to you while your spouse is deployed until your spouse can return home.
  • A sudden emergency makes it impossible for you to complete the full guardian nomination process in time.

What Happens at the End of a Temporary Guardianship?

A temporary guardianship only has legal effect for the designated time or until the specified condition is met. At the end of temporary guardianship, it would be as if you didn’t have a guardian at all. If you have the mental capacity to do so, you can extend the guardianship. If you do not have mental capacity and have no other plan in place, the court may consider what the temporary guardian has done so far when deciding on a permanent guardian, but the fact that they were your temporary guardian is not a deciding factor in selecting the permanent guardian.

What is an Informal Guardianship?

You may sometimes hear a temporary guardianship referred to as an informal guardianship. This is because the temporary guardianship may be set up outside of the courts. Often, the informal guardianship is set out in a notarized letter. This is not as strong as a power of attorney or full guardianship but can still be useful in certain situations. One of the most common uses is when a child will be going to live with a relative for a while and the parent will still be able to address any concerns that arise while the relative assumes primary care.

What is a Testamentary Guardianship?

A testamentary guardianship is a guardianship listed in a parent’s will. This is another type of informal guardianship.

It is not possible to legally leave a child to another relative in a will even when well-intentioned and the whole family agrees. The job of a will is to answer questions about property distribution.

What a testamentary guardianship does is simply to make the wishes of the parent known. Courts will usually honor these wishes on a temporary basis if the family is in agreement, but the full guardianship process will need to happen before the guardian becomes permanent.

What is an Emergency Guardianship?

Some people may refer to the temporary guardianship they’ve set up as an emergency guardianship, but an emergency guardianship usually means a temporary guardian appointed by the court. Courts usually appoint emergency guardians when someone has a serious accident or illness and needs a guardian but never nominated one. The court appoints the emergency guardian for a limited period of time to handle the emergency while the regular guardianship process plays out.

What is a Limited Guardianship?

A limited guardianship means the guardian has limited powers. For example, you may wish to appoint a guardian to make medical decisions and a separate conservator for financial decisions. A limited guardianship can either be temporary or permanent.

Do I Need a Temporary Guardianship if I Have a Permanent Guardian?

Even if you’ve nominated a permanent guardian, the court still needs to formally approve the guardianship before it can take effect. Designating the same person to act as your temporary guardian can avoid any ambiguity about what should happen while that process plays out. In addition, you may still need a backup temporary guardian in case the permanent guardian can’t immediately step in.

Do Grandparents or Other Relatives Automatically Become Guardians of Minor Children?

Grandparents or other relatives do not automatically become guardians of minor children if something happens to the parents. They can generally take the children in temporarily as long as there are no objections from the rest of the family, but their authority to make decisions regarding school, doctors, etc. would be limited to emergency decisions only. In addition, any disputes between family members about what should happen could be disruptive to the children’s lives during an already difficult time.

What if the Parents are Divorced?

A temporary guardianship or other arrangements can’t override the other parent’s parental rights. Generally, both parents would need to agree to a temporary guardianship. For example, both parents may want to jointly make a plan in case something were to happen to both of them.

Otherwise, courts would generally look to one parent to take over if something happened to another. For example, if two divorced parents with joint custody lived in the same town and one was hospitalized, the child would usually go to live with the other parent rather than a temporary guardian appointed by the one in the hospital. If they lived far apart, a temporary guardian might come into play while travel and other arrangements are made.

Should Children Know About Temporary Guardianship Plans?

Depending on their age and maturity, it can be a good idea to let children know your plans for a family member to take care of you and/or them if something were to happen. This allows you to gain their input and can also ease fears they have about being orphaned that you may not even be aware of.

What is a Temporary Guardian’s Financial Responsibility?

You generally maintain financial responsibility for yourself and your dependent children even when you’re incapacitated. The temporary guardian may have the right to use your funds to further your and your child’s interests. This would be subject to any financial planning documents you have in place.

To make this process easy and avoid burdening the guardian, you should account for this in your planning documents. You may wish to set aside specific funds or make sure your guardian will have access to your checking and savings accounts.

Can a Temporary Guardianship Be Terminated Early?

If you have sufficient mental capacity to do so, you can terminate a temporary guardianship you established for any reason. A family member or other interested person may also petition a court to end a temporary guardianship. They may believe that you were not of sound mind when you established the guardianship or that the guardian isn’t fulfilling their duties. The court would then make a decision that it believes is in the best interest of you and/or your children.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Temporary Guardianship?

Even though you can set up an informal guardianship on your own, working with a lawyer helps make sure everything is in the proper form so that it can take legal effect. Your attorney can also help you build in the necessary financial and other arrangements into your family protection plan. To learn more, contact Lilac City Law today.

Contact

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.