The Silver Haired Legislature is an elected body of Missouri senior citizens who advocate for legislation that addresses the concerns of older adults, like pay day loan restrictions and elder abuse. But recently they’ve thrown their support behind a unique issue – children in the care of grandparents, and the complicated process of obtaining legal guardianship in the state of Missouri.
Lois Fitzpatrick is a 76-year-old woman who lives in Clay County. In 2001, Fitzpatrick and her husband agreed to be the legal guardians of their granddaughter - the child’s mother, Fitzpatrick’s daughter, was in favor of it. According to Fitzpatrick, to obtain uncontested legal guardianship at that time you had to fill out an application, get the parents signatures notarized, and pay a $25 filing fee. The county clerk’s office would then set a date for you to stand in front of the judge. It was simple, she said. A few years later, it wasn’t.
“At that time in Clay County you did not need to have an attorney if it was uncontested,” said Fitzpatrick. “When I found out later that the law had changed and everybody had to pay for a lawyer just to file a simple form with the office of the clerk of the county, I thought ‘This is ridiculous.’”
While not everybody may need a lawyer in a guardianship case, many courts do recommend it, because the process has become a lot more complicated and is different for every county. For example in Boone County, guardians fill out a three page application and pay a $345 filing fee. In Jackson County, the fee is more reasonable, around $110, but the application runs 22 pages long.
This variation makes the process confusing and expensive, said Fitzpatrick, especially for grandparents, who increasingly are taking over as guardians in these cases.
“Nationally it’s actually been increasing for several years now,” said Karen Traylor, a family support specialist for Parentlink, an organization that provides resources and services for Missouri families. Traylor said that at one time the state didn’t like placing children with other family members, because it was thought that if a parent was an unfit guardian, the family would be too.
“But then what they started realizing was that there were plenty of grandparents and other relatives that could provide adequate or very good care for the kids,” said Traylor. “That they were just sort of overlooking because of the assumptions that were made.”
Today the state would prefer to give legal guardianship to a family member, because it keeps the child with people they know. Here in Missouri, around 48,000 children are being cared for by their grandparents. So Fitzpatrick got to work on presenting what was now being called “the grandparents bill” to state legislators. That’s when she met Representative Ken Wilson, of Missouri’s 12th District.
“He said 'Send me a copy of that and we'll get it filed,'” said Fitzpatrick.
Wilson said that there’s a disincentive to simplify the process of legal guardianship when so many people are making money from it. But it doesn’t have to be that way, he said. Especially in uncontested guardianship cases where family members are involved.
The grandparents bill has been included in omnibus HB1231, which should be sent to the floor for discussion and a vote as early as next week. It calls for the Missouri Bar Association and the state courts to develop a standardized form for applying to be a legal guardian. The Missouri Bar opposes the legislation in its current form.
“[Grandparents] ought to be able to get some help,” said Wilson. “And that help shouldn’t be cumbersome, it shouldn’t be bogged down in red tape, and it certainly shouldn’t depend on how much of a bank account you’ve got whether or not you can hire an attorney or not,” he said. “That’s just crazy.”