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How the death of a custodial parent is handled legally

When a Pennsylvania custodial parent dies, the noncustodial parent may then get custody of the child. However, if the noncustodial parent is a father, establishing paternity must be the first step. Paternity has already been established if the father's name is on the birth certificate or the father has signed an acknowledgement of paternity that has been filed in court.

If the noncustodial parent cannot become the child's guardian, a grandparent or another relative might step in. If this is not possible, then a person who is not related to the child could also become the guardian. This might be a family friend. In deciding whether a person who is not family may become guardian, a judge will take into account whether a family member has asked for custody, what the child's relationship is with the person who is trying to get custody, and what is in the best interests of the child.

If no family members or non-family members are able to become the child's guardian, then the child will likely enter the foster system as a ward of the state. Family members will not have any say about where the child may be placed, and they may have to petition for visitation if they would like to visit the child in foster care.

Parents may want to discuss this possibility while they are negotiating child custody. Some parents might agree to have joint physical custody in which the child lives with each of them for roughly the same amount of time. If parents share custody in this way, it might not be necessary for either to pay support to the other. Parents may want to consider a number of other issues, such as extracurricular activities, as they and their respective family law attorneys are drawing up a parenting agreement.

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