SHERIDAN — Grandparents and great-grandparents who step in to raise grandchildren and great-grandchildren enter a tough realm on many levels.
“Grandparents are making tremendous, tremendous sacrifices to raise their grandchildren,” Brendon Kerns said.
Kerns is a Sheridan-based attorney who practices in estate planning and family law. He was the keynote speaker earlier this year to grandparents raising their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
What many grandparents do not realize is that grandparents have no legal voice in raising grandchildren unless certain steps are taken.
Tongue River residents Robin and Roger Ruff attended Kern’s presentation. What they heard was eye-opening.
“We got a lot of good information from him,” Robin Ruff said. “There are a lot of legal things we didn’t know about protecting our grandson. We didn’t know about the paperwork or what each document did.”
The Ruffs noted the reaction from the grandparents in the audience.
“It (the information) made a lot of difference to others in the group,” Ruff said. “There are so many ins and outs to raising a grandchild and Brendon was able to give an overview.”
Grandparents who find themselves bringing grandchildren into their homes don’t realize they have no say in medical, legal, financial or educational situations on behalf of the child unless they can provide documentation they have the legal right to do so.
“The school district or the child’s doctor must see documentation that you have the legal right to act on behalf of the child,” Kerns said.
Two examples where proof is required include deciding what grades the child will be in or if he or she can participate in school sports.
Two important documents — a guardianship and conservatorship — play a role in all of this.
Guardianship grants legal authority for the maintenance and general care of a minor and a conservatorship grants authority for financial decisions on behalf of a minor.
Linda Vallejo is going through a second round of being an older relative caregiver; she raised one granddaughter and is now raising a great-granddaughter and soon her great-grandson. She has learned something about the documentation.
“I didn’t know that a parent could just walk in and take the child without the right guardianship document,” Vallejo said.
Vallejo learned in her journey that there is a required notice in the newspaper for her to proceed to acquire the legal right to act on behalf of her great-grandson. This is only one of many steps in the process.
Vallejo’s initial steps were haphazard. She knew nothing about what to do and started by asking a neighbor and conducting internet searches.
But pulling forms off the internet is not advised.
“There are specifics to each case that an internet form cannot address and leaves you exposed,” Kerns said. “And writing something on a piece of paper that you sign is worthless.”
Vallejo learned the right way to acquire permanent guardianship means working with an attorney to get the documentation in place.
She also discovered that the school district was a surprising resource.
“They would tell me that I would need this and that and give me pointers where to go for what,” Vallejo said.
Although a child’s school could be a partner in such situations, schools require grandparents to produce legal documentation that they have the right to act on behalf of the child.
Although school staff may be helpful, they can’t shepherd families entirely through the process, which can be complicated and time-consuming depending on the circumstances. The process can take anywhere from months to years even if you know what you are doing and do all the right things. Trying to file the paperwork by yourself can lead to unfruitful results.
“Keep in mind if you try doing this yourself, you are expected to know the law. If you make a mistake, you can lose your case,” Kerns said. “Many of these grandparents are stressed in trying to raise that grandchild and then put the process on top of that.”
Filing in the right jurisdiction is one example where knowing the law is crucial to the process.
Grandparents entering the process should interview attorneys, asking if they charge for consultation, what the process is and about rates and costs. If finances are strained, ask about assistance. Then choose one with which to work.
For Kerns, the process of helping grandparents to gain legal status to care for their grandchildren can be fulfilling.
“For some, it’s wonderful to help them through the process,” Kerns said. “These grandparents are stepping up because they have a moral obligation.”
In October, Kerns will be speaking with grandparents raising grandchildren in a free community presentation. He plans to talk about estate planning to protect grandchildren should something happen to the grandparent. His presentation will be offered through the Senior Center’s Grandparents Raising Grandchildren support program.
“I admire (grandparents) for their sacrifices and what they’re willing to do,” Kerns said.