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Not home alone

Parents should make sure their children will always be taken care of

Parents should make sure their children will always be taken care of

February 29, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

It's not a topic many people want to think about - their own mortality.

But if you're the parent of a minor child, it's a possibility that should not be ignored. If death came for you tomorrow, who would care for your child?

Perhaps it would be a family member or friend. Don't assume that if your child has a godparent, that person is the guardian unless you've already made that arrangement with your child's godparent - and in your will.

Naming names

The last will and testament is the easiest way to set up guardianship for a minor child in the event of a parent's death, according to Tri-State-area family attorneys and a family court judge.

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Making it legal through the will helps make the parent's wish enforceable in case someone disputes the issue after the parent's death, said Clint Barkdoll, a lawyer with the Waynesboro, Pa.-based firm Kulla, Barkdoll, Ullman & Painter.

Using a will to designate your child's guardian also could save the guardian time and money later in terms of court costs and red tape, Barkdoll said.

In Pennsylvania, another way to establish a guardian for your minor child is through the state's Standby Guardianship Act, said Brian Bornman, solicitor for Franklin County Children & Youth Services.

Parents can establish a power of attorney for the person who cares for their children, Bornman said. Parents would stipulate in the legal document what would trigger the power of attorney to go into effect, such as the parents' deaths or incapacitation through an event such as a coma. The designated person would become guardian for the children, with the guardian having 60 days to go to court to get the guardianship confirmed so it could continue beyond the 60 days, Bornman said.

In Pennsylvania, guardianship cases are handled by the Court of Common Pleas, Barkdoll said.

Planning ahead in Md.

If parents die in a car accident in Washington County and the police notify the Department of Social Services about unattended children, department officials will attempt to find a family member to care for the children, said David A. Engle, director of the Washington County Department of Social Services. If family members can't be found promptly, the children would be placed in a licensed foster home until relatives can be found, he said.

In Maryland, if a guardian hasn't been appointed and the parent(s) with custody dies, someone - usually a relative - can petition the Circuit Court to become guardian of the child, said Dennis Weaver, clerk of the circuit court in Washington County. The guardian would handle health care and school decisions, Weaver said. However, the guardian might not maintain custody, instead permitting the child to live with another relative.

In West Virginia, guardianship cases are typically decided in Family Court, but also could be decided in Circuit Court, according to Family Court Judge William Wertman.

Tips from the pros

Here are some tips from legal experts to consider when selecting a guardian for your child:

Pick someone around your own age, recommends Hagerstown-attorney Bob Stone. Stone discourages clients from picking older people as guardians for children, especially young children, because they are more likely to die before the parents.

Select someone who is stable and reliable, someone you are assured can handle the responsibility of caring for your child, said Wertman, who works on Berkeley and Jefferson county cases in West Virginia.

Include a backup selection in your will in case the person you chose to be guardian dies first or can't serve as guardian any longer, Hagerstown attorney Timothy Gordon said.

Make sure the guardian has the resources and physical environment to take on responsibility for your child, Barkdoll said.

Parents might want to consider selecting someone who lives in the same area so the child doesn't have to switch schools or develop new social and support networks, Barkdoll said.

Set up a fund to help the guardian with the cost of raising the child.

No surprises

Make sure the person you have chosen to be guardian knows he or she is the designated guardian and is willing to take on the responsibility, Gordon and Wertman said.

Barkdoll said he's occasionally run into situations where the person chosen to be guardian or executor of a will didn't know he or she had been chosen until the parent who named the guardian had died.

"It's not something you should surprise someone with after death," he said.

Barkdoll said the prospective guardian should agree to be the child's guardian. Give the guardian a copy of the will, he said, so he or she can see specifically what is asked for.

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