Does My Child Need a Legal Guardian?

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When parents have children, they will often (or should) consider what would happen to their children whilst they remain under the age of 18 if they were no longer alive.  Guardianship is central to this quandary.

Who would be best to look after their child and act as their “guardian”? If they have more than one child would the proposed guardian(s) be able to look after all their children, or would it be better for their children to be looked after by different guardians? If the intended guardians already have children of their own, how will they be able to manage with the sudden arrival of additional children they are effectively inheriting?

These practical difficulties are often the single biggest factor causing delays to parents preparing wills.

Who can appoint a testamentary guardian in a will?

  • A parent of the child who has parental responsibility or;
  • Someone who has already been appointed as a guardian for the child or by someone who has been appointed as a for the child.

The main times that a person has “parental responsibility” is where:

  • The child’s father and mother were married to, or civil partners of, each other at the time of the child’s birth they shall each have parental responsibility of the child.
  • Where the parents are not married to each other, but the father is named on the birth certificate then both parents will have parental responsibility.
  • If the parents were not married to each other and the father has acquired parental responsibility as a result of a court order or parental responsibility agreement, then both parents will have parental responsibility.

In all other cases, only the mother has parental responsibility.

What does parental responsibility mean for guardians?

Under the Children Act “parental responsibility” means “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of the child has in relation to the child and his property.” Essentially this means that a guardian with parental responsibility can do anything which a parent would be expected to do for that child.

A parent who has parental responsibility for his child may appoint another individual to be the child’s guardian in the event of his death.

As mentioned above, this therefore allows the person to appoint a guardian either during their lifetime, or by will.

A guardian may only be appointed in relation to a child however, i.e. someone who is under the age of 18. Where a child arrangement order is in place, the appointment of a guardian will take effect immediately on the death of the person named as the person with whom the child should live.  Otherwise, the appointment of a guardian by one parent in a will, will not take effect if the child concerned has a parent with parental responsibility for him who is still alive. Instead, the appointment under the will only takes effect when the child no longer has a parent who has parental responsibility.

Can a child have more than one guardian?

Two or more guardians may be appointed jointly, which may result from either one parent appointing more than one, or both parents appointing different guardians. If neither has appointed a guardian at all, then the court will step in to appoint someone.

The appointment of a guardian can be revoked if the will is revoked completely, or simply if the appointment is revoked by a written and dated document which is signed by the testator in the presence of two witnesses.

Whilst it is good practice for parents to check with the intended guardians that they are happy to act as guardians before appointing them in their will, there is no obligation to do so in England & Wales.

Do guardians need to agree to being appointed?

A person who is appointed as a guardian therefore has the ability to disclaim his appointment in writing and made in a reasonable time of them first knowing that the appointment has taken effect.

Any appointment may of course be challenged by others and typically such questions are dealt with by the family courts who will decide whether the appointment of the testamentary guardian is in the best interests of the child concerned or will decide who else to appoint in their place.  The court has full power to replace a guardian if it believes that it is in the best interest of the child to do so.  The court may determine any question with respect to the upbringing of the child, or the administration of the child’s property or the application as any income arising from it and, in doing so, the child’s welfare shall be of the court’s paramount consideration.

The guardianship ends when a child reaches the age of 18 and becomes an adult, unless it is brought to an end sooner, for example a result of an order by the court or the death of the first guardian and no successor having been appointed. It cannot be extended beyond the child’s 18th birthday, however.

Trusts and deputies for adult children with special needs

Often families who have a child with special needs will want to appoint a guardian to help look after the child’s affairs beyond the age of 18, on the basis that their child will not be able to manage their finances on their own.  This is best achieved with the use of trusts and trustees as the appointment of guardians will automatically come to an end when the child reaches 18.  There is nothing preventing parents nominating another adult to act “in loco parentis” after the child is over the age of 18, however such appointment would have no legal status.  It may be of great assistance, however, if there is an application for that person to become the (now adult) child’s deputy, both in terms of supporting the application itself, and also once the appointment as deputy has been made. An attorney or deputy must take into account, if it is practical and appropriate to do so, anyone engaged in caring for the person or interested in their welfare. It may also be of assistance to trustees in helping them decide how to exercise any discretionary powers they may have. Lastly, it may also assist in making an application to be the DWP appointee in relation to benefits – if no-one has already been appointed and nobody else is able to make that application.

Whilst this may not be exactly what the parents are looking for, in terms of advice, it may be the only option available to them.

For many parents with adult children with additional needs, it will often be appropriate to apply to the Court of Protection for an order for them to be appointed as deputies if their child has property and financial affairs that need to be managed. Depending on the age of the parents, such an application may include their child’s siblings or other family members as additional deputies to avoid the need to make a further application once the parents are no longer able to act as deputies, either as a result of incapacity or death.

Similar considerations will need to be given by those parents in relation to whether it is appropriate for a health and welfare deputy to be appointed by the Court of Protection either instead of, or in addition to a property and financial affairs deputy. These types of application are not only quite rare, but also the costs regime usually makes the costs payable by the applicants, as opposed to being paid for out of the funds of the person to whom the application relates.

The appointment of guardians is governed by section 5 of the Children Act 1989 () and is not limited to appointments by a court or to wills. It can be by any document in writing which is properly witnessed by two witnesses present at the same time. However, we will focus on testamentary guardians, i.e. those appointed under a will or codicil.

Here to Help

For advice about appointing a guardian for your child, or advice about trusts and deputyships for children over the age of 18 with special needs, please get in touch with Charles Fraser, Senior Solicitor and Head of Older and Vulnerable Client team.

Please note the contents of this article are given for information only and must not be relied upon. Legal advice should always be sought in relation to specific circumstances.