Parental Death Then What

Sadly, it happens. Parents die and something must be arranged for the ongoing care and healthy development of a child. A lot of make suggestions in our wills or trust regarding our minor children but few think it out from the perspective that the adoption community can bring to the issue. Today’s stories and insights highlight the issues.

I am looking for resources about adoption following death of a parent or parents, NOT adoption due to a lack of support for birth parents. Attachment trauma is a given. Actively honoring the memory of the late parent(s) is a high priority, as is pursuing therapy for all parties. The children know their own stories, have access to their family health history, and retain their birth names. Beyond this, I would like to better understand adoption vs. legal guardianship in the context of parental death.

My sister died, leaving my niece behind. My parents already had guardianship before she passed, but also go full custody as well after. but they are currently pursuing adoption strictly for the legal assurances it gives us. They are in their 70’s and although in excellent health, you never know. If they adopt her, they can “leave her to me” for lack of a better term. With the current arraignment, I would have to totally start over from square one. But they aren’t trying to adopt her in the traditional sense. They don’t want to be called mom/dad, etc. it’s just for custody/legal purposes.

I was orphaned at age 7 when my mother died in a car accident. Legal Guardianship made college paperwork a nightmare, it made school field trips/enrollments and passports and traveling across borders immensely difficult. One time, I had a border patrol agent insinuate my grandfather was trafficking me despite our last names matching on our passports and his drivers license. My mother did not allow my stepfather to adopt me despite him coming into my life when I was 1. I am grateful she didn’t.

Adoptee who was adopted due to the death of a parent. Please do not steal their last name. My name being changed stole my connection to my deceased dad and I still resent it decades later. My last name was all I had of his and it was changed, even though my adoptive parents knew how I felt about it

Guardianship is will be heavily state dependent because states are so different with respect to family law. It could largely depend on the specifics of the court order. A guardianship order for a child who has no legal or living parents would have to ensure the guardians have the same rights and responsibilities as parents, including the ability to sign for a passport / take children out of country. One problem you could run into with guardianship would be – if you did have to immigrate to another country – the children would likely not be eligible on your visa. Only legally adopt if that’s the only option.

Best to not change the birth certificates, refer to yourself as “mom/dad” and do maintain relationships with extended family. Consider long term security in terms of custody (including if you were to die and future guardianship decisions), medical decision-making rights, access to IDs/passports, and so on. Legal guardianship can be tricky to navigate. An informed attorney is a must. As far as I know, there is not currently any state that allows the original birth certificate to remain intact with the finalization of an adoption. Hence the growing interest in guardianships. In some states, children under legal guardianship do not get all the benefits that foster and adoptive children do (example: free college tuition).

Here was a good example of how to talk to people at the child(ren)’s school – always introduce your title – grandma/grandpa, aunt/uncle, etc. Let them call you by your real name/ title (Aunt Carla, Grandma, etc.) rather than Mom. That will require some effort upfront on your part with teachers and so forth. Reach out to their teachers before the start of the school year and introduce yourself – Hi, John and I are Jane’s Aunt and Uncle. I know most kids live with parents but Jane‘s parents are deceased. It’s a tough subject for her – of course – and I know you would want a head’s up so that you can use inclusive language for the students’ families. I think it is important to take the lead with all those kinds of introductions, so the burden to explain does not fall on the child(ren).

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