The term legal guardian refers to a person appointed by a court to care for another person, as well as make decisions on that person’s behalf. This person has been legally entrusted with the upbringing, protection, or benefit of a ward. A legal guardian assumes responsibility over another person, as they have been granted the legal authority to care for that person’s personal and property interests. Some examples of these decisions include:

  • Medical decisions;
  • Financial decisions; and 
  • Contract agreements and other legally binding decisions.

A legal guardian is generally assigned to incapacitated seniors, developmentally disabled adults, and minor children. In situations involving a minor child, the legal guardian acts as the child’s primary caretaker and may have been selected by the child’s own parents, as opposed to being court appointed. Such an arrangement would be especially necessary when a child’s biological parents are no longer able to care for the child.

Legal guardianships are regulated by guardianship laws, which determine who can become a legal guardian as well as the manner in which the guardianship is to be carried out. There are different types of guardianships, with some granting the guardian full decision making powers over their ward, and others limiting them to only financial or medical decisions. 

Additionally, guardianship is not always permanent. In fact, many types of legal guardianship arrangements are on a short-term basis. In general, legal guardianships end when the ward reaches the age of majority, which is typically eighteen years old.

What Rights and Duties Do Legal Guardians Have?

Generally speaking, a legal guardian has the right to make legal decisions on behalf of their ward. Such decisions could include where the ward lives, where the ward attends school (if the ward is a minor), and decisions regarding medical care.

Legal guardians have many duties to their ward, as the legal guardian generally has both legal and physical custody of the ward. Because of this, many of the guardian’s duties to their ward are similar to a parent’s duty to their child. Some of the most common examples of these duties include:

  • Providing food, clothing, and shelter;
  • Maintaining their ward’s physical, mental, and emotional health; and
  • Protecting the ward from various safety hazards and unsafe situations.

All legal guardians have a fiduciary duty to their ward, meaning they are legally mandated to be honest and responsible when managing their ward’s finances. The guardian must act in good faith and exercise good judgment. Additionally, they must keep their funds separate from their ward’s.

Do Legal Guardians Have Visitation Rights?

Child custody and visitation rights can be a complicated matter, some more complex than others. An example of this would be a custody arrangement involving a mix of biological parents, adoptive parents, stepparents, other relatives such as grandparents, and a legal guardian.

A legal guardianship does not always involve actual, physical custody of the ward. The guardian may have various responsibilities related to their ward’s upbringing, but the child’s biological parent maintains physical custody rights. In many cases, a legal guardian may be granted visitation rights as long as it falls within the child’s best interests standard. The visitation arrangement must serve to directly benefit the child and their interests, not the interests of the legal guardian or any other parent or adult party.

Requests for legal guardian visitation rights can be made directly through the court order which covers custody and visitation.

Can a Legal Guardian Determine the Visitation Rights of Other Parties?

In some jurisdictions, the legal guardian is granted the authority to restrict or limit the visitation rights of others. An example of this would be when a legal guardian restricts a biological parent from visiting the child due to a history of violent physical abuse by the parent. 

In such a case, the legal guardian may be able to obtain a court order which would prevent the biological parent from being awarded visitation rights. It is assumed that a legal guardian would not take such power lightly, and would be making such decisions based on keeping the child safe. A legal guardian is responsible for looking after their ward’s best interests.

If a legal guardian has placed such limitations on someone else’s visitation rights, they are typically backed by a court order enforcing the decision. What this means is that any party who wishes to challenge the visitation arrangements will need to file in court, in order to have the visitation arrangement changed. These types of visitation limitations are most common with legal guardians and elderly or disabled wards.

Do I Need an Attorney for Guardianship and Visitation Rights?

If you have any questions or issues regarding legal guardian visitation rights, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable family attorney. An experienced family law attorney can help you understand your state’s specific laws, your rights, and the rights of your ward. Additionally, they will represent you in court as needed.