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Estate planning: Child guardianship choices

Many Harrisburg area parents probably think about and even discuss the person or people they'd like to care for their children, in the event the parents are incapacitated or die. But thoughts and spoken words don't compare to legal actions. Many parents simply don't take the formal steps to select a guardian to raise minor children.

Guardianship discussions are frequently the first brush many couples have with estate planning. Parents may assume a sibling or a grandparent would be willing and able to step in and take over the child-rearing job parents could not do, but assumptions can be wrong.

These "default" relatives may or may not share your values or be prepared to handle financial obligations to your children. In some cases, family members simply may not want the responsibility.

One thing is for certain: a Pennsylvania court will decide who raises children, if parents don't make a guardian choice. Just because your child calls someone "Aunt" or "Grandma" doesn't give a close relative the legal power to act in your place. You must appoint a guardian to ensure the children end up where you want them to be, in case you die or are incapable of parenting.

Think of it this way – without the designation of a legal guardian, a relative has no more authority to raise your children than a babysitter. With no named guardian, the state could place your minor children in foster care until their fate is decided. A guardian should be supplied with proper documentation and have the ability to act immediately, according to the parents' wishes to avoid this scenario and any legal issues among family members.

An estate planning attorney can assist you with the guardian decision-making process. In addition, a lawyer helps make arrangements so a guardian has the financial resources to raise children and recommends the most beneficial way to pass assets to heirs.

Source: National Public Radio, "Picking a Guardian for Your Children," accessed May. 28, 2015

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