April Harris Jackson

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Nashville guardianship lawyers are asked this question nearly every day! The answer is…maybe. Before you begin to worry, let us explain.

By law, parents are the natural guardians of their children, regardless of the parents’ relationship. When unmarried or divorced parents have a formal parenting plan and one party passes away, that parenting plan is no longer valid. In most cases, the child’s permanent custody would revert to the surviving parent.

What If the Surviving Parent is “Unfit?”

If there are concerns about the fitness of a surviving parent, the State of Tennessee has a provision where a third party can step in and apply for guardianship of a minor child. For example, a grandparent may be compelled to apply for guardianship if they feel the surviving parent is not capable of raising the child(ren). Unfortunately, in these circumstances, the burden of proof is on the grandparent (or other petitioner). The third-party would have to prove in court that the surviving parent is unfit, which could result in an expensive and lengthy custody battle.

You Can Still Have a Say

As a parent, you can also take steps to make your wishes for your children known in your will.  If you believe that your ex is unfit or unable to care for your children in your absence, you can use your estate plan to spell out your concerns and offer up alternative choices for guardians.  After your passing, a judge will be given the opportunity to review your wishes and ultimately decide if choosing a guardian other than the biological parent would be in the child’s best interest.

Even if your ex were to obtain physical guardianship over your child(ren), that does not mean that they have to get any money that you have set aside to care for your child in the event of your death.  Many people use trusts to control how any inheritance is managed rather than potentially letting the other parent gain control over the child’s financial assets. A well drafted trust allows you to manage your child’s financial future even after you are gone.  

What if parental rights were terminated?

If the surviving parent has previously had their parental rights terminated, they will not be considered for guardianship of the child(ren) after the death of the other parent. In these cases, it is extremely important for the parent who retains rights to have an estate plan that spells out exactly who should raise the child and what resources are to be used to do so if something happens to mom or dad.

Get Informed to Be Empowered

While guardianship questions are rarely black and white, the solution in almost all instances is to create an estate plan. There is nothing more important in life than protecting our children’s future, and a straightforward estate plan can give you the peace of mind that your child will be protected no matter what!

If you have questions or you are ready to get started with creating legal documents to protect your family, please schedule an appointment with our Nashville guardianship lawyer, April Jackson.