Many New Jersey parents are taking steps to protect themselves and their children from the coronavirus; staying at home, thorough handwashing and virtual playdates are the order of the day. The New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) is suggesting one more: completing a power of attorney (POA) form that designates a temporary legal guardian in the event a parent or parents become ill or incapacitated.
A COVID-19 diagnosis is not a sole reason for DCF to become involved with families, “so we do not track it as a category,” said department spokesperson Nicole Brossoie. However, a “very small” number of children have been removed from their homes when parents were incapacitated by the disease.
When children are removed under DCF oversight, efforts are made to connect them with family or someone familiar. When that is not possible, foster care placement is arranged. “The potential for more, similar situations is why we are working to educate the public about the Power of Attorney forms and the importance of developing a family plan,” Brossoie said.
The POA can be completed by parents of children up to age 18 or those caring for adults with disabilities for any reason — but the coronavirus has amplified the importance of preparing for the unexpected. On the DCF’s POA, parents can select areas for which the temporary guardian (the “attorney in fact”) can make decisions for the child, such as education, health care or financial.
Fred J. Pisani, a partner in Ramp & Pisani, with offices in Tenafly and Princeton, practices family law and believes the state’s recommendations have merit. “The POA is tremendously valuable and a great idea any time, but especially now with uncertainty around the coronavirus,” said Pisani. “It puts parents’ intentions for a temporary guardian in writing and can be tailored, for example, for how long the guardianship should last.”
The DCF suggests parents discuss plans with the temporary guardian in advance and have important documents (birth certificate, health and school records, wills) in one place. The POA can be kept on file at home, shared with an attorney and/or presented to a medical professional, as needed. Brossoie said the POA is being translated into Spanish and Korean, and noted the agency has prepared other child and family resources.
While the DCF suggests the POA be notarized, it’s not a requirement. Notaries and licensed New Jersey attorneys, many available online, can notarize the document with an electronic signature.