What Does Guardianship Over a Child Mean?

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Guardianship over a child is a legal arrangement conveying the rights and responsibilities of parenthood to another adult. Families may choose guardianship voluntarily under some circumstances, or they may experience guardianship due to intervention by a state child welfare agency or court. While a guardian has primary rights to raise the child, guardianship differs from adoption in that it does not completely terminate the birth parents' rights.


Guardianship is a legal relationship formed between a child and an adult who is not the child's birth parent. The guardian has the right to make parenting decisions in important areas such as education, health and living environment, while the birth parent takes on a diminished role. The guardian also takes financial responsibility for the child and makes financial decisions. Some guardians may need to report regularly to a state child welfare agency or court as part of their guardianship responsibilities. The guardianship continues until the child reaches the age of 18 or another age determined by court order.


Some birth parents may choose several types of guardianship for their children. For example, birth parents may identify a short-term guardian to cover a designated period of time or identify a stand-by guardian who will become the child's caregiver only if certain events happen in the future. In contrast, other families must face guardianship of their children through involvement with their state's child welfare courts or foster care system. To assist families in giving permanent homes to children in the child welfare system, some states might offer financial assistance through subsidized guardianship programs.


Guardianship provides the adults and children with the stability of a long-term, permanent relationship. Birth parents, when involved, can also gain peace of mind in knowing that their children will have a stable family arrangement. Guardianship allows the child to remain in a safe environment while continuing a relationship with his birth parents through visitation or other contact, if allowed by the legal arrangement. Children can keep their own family names, if preferred, and choose how to maintain relationships with their birth parents.


Families seeking a long-term, permanent relationship with a child may consider adoption or guardianship. In an adoption, the legal aspects of the parent-child relationship continue regardless of the child's age. Adoption irrevocably severs the birth parents' rights, while guardianship allows the birth parents to retain some parental rights, such as visitation, depending on the court orders in place. Adoption also ends the child's right to inherit from the birth parents unless arranged by a legal will.