What Are the Differences Between Custody and Legal Guardianship?

Family law is complex, and when it comes to the care of a child, the legal definitions can be confusing. Many people conflate custody with guardianship when the two terms describe very different things. The key difference is the child’s parentage: custody describes a parent’s care of a child, whereas legal guardianship is granted to someone who is not the child’s biological parent. In some situations, a child may be under the guardianship of an individual while remaining in the custody of their parents to a degree.

Legal Guardianship

The main role of a legal guardian is to act in the child’s best interests when the child’s parents cannot do so. Legal guardians are usually relatives such as an aunt, uncle, or grandparent. This may be due to death, incapacitation, or incarceration for a crime. In some situations, adults with severe handicaps may need a legal guardian to care for them and act on their behalf. This is known as an adult guardianship.

In the realm of family law, guardianship typically refers to anyone assuming the legal responsibilities of caring for a child who is not the child’s parent. Temporary guardianships may be granted in some cases, and emergency guardianships apply to other scenarios. A temporary guardianship is appointed for a specific period or for a specific purpose. In some cases, an emergency may urge the court to appoint a guardian if the person requiring care is facing an immediate risk of harm or is incapacitated and unable to make legal decisions on their own behalf.

In most cases involving the guardianship of a child, a legal guardian must fill out the necessary paperwork (which shows your interest in being named the child’s guardian) and file it with the court. The court will arrange meetings between you and the child and determine whether such an arrangement would be in the child’s best interest. A legal guardian is not only responsible for the child’s physical wellbeing and care, but is also charged with handling all major decisions for the child. It’s important to note that legal guardianships typically only end when the child reaches 18 years old or the guardian dies.

Child Custody

Custody is granted to the child’s parents. There are two types of custody: physical and legal. Physical custody refers to the child’s daily life, such as living arrangements, medical care, and other necessities. Legal custody refers to making major decisions on the child’s behalf. In some situations, a parent may have partial physical custody of a child and be allowed to live with them for some periods of time and spend some time with them, but the parent is not legally permitted to make any official decisions on the child’s behalf.

Custody is different than guardianship largely because a guardian can make physical and legal decisions for the child. In many ways, a legal guardianship is like an adoption, except that in a legal guardianship, the child’s biological parents are still legally considered the child’s parents. In an adoption, the biological parents surrender their legal rights to the child.

Understand Family Law

Legal guardianship can turn into a complicated issue – especially if custody arrangements are involved. It’s vital to understand what legal guardianship means if you intend to assume the role of legal guardian for a child or if you’re involved in any kind of custody dispute. If you find yourself in any type of custody or guardianship dispute, it’s a good idea to reach out to a qualified California family law attorney. A lawyer can help navigate the legal entanglements surrounding guardianship and provide legal representation should the need arise.