A guardianship is an important legal role that is typically appointed by the probate court. A guardianship allows a person, usually referred to as a legal guardian, the legal ability to make personal, medical, and financial decisions on behalf of another person, called a ward.

In most guardianship situations, the ward is a child or an individual with severe mental or physical disabilities that prevent them from being able to make decisions on their own behalf. In some states, a guardianship is referred to as a conservatorship.

Are there Different Types of Guardianships?

Yes, there are different types of guardianship relationships. Some guardianships grant a guardian full decision making powers over the ward and some are limit the guardian to only making financial or legal decisions.

The different types of guardianships vary by state, but the common types of guardianships include:  

  • Full guardianships that grant the guardian full decision making powers over the ward in cases where the ward is unable to make any personal, financial or healthcare decisions;
  • Limited guardianships that are granted by the court when the ward is capable of making some of their own decisions about their personal care, but might need help from a guardian for assistance in making more complex decisions related to finances, healthcare or life changes;
  • Co-guardianships that are granted when the court appoints two guardians to make decisions on behalf of the ward which helps to prevent any abuse of power by one of the guardians;
  • Short-term or temporary guardianships are granted by the court when the ward is facing an emergency situation, or temporarily unable to make decisions on their own behalf;
  • Guardianships of an estate where a guardian is primarily tasked with overseeing, managing, and making financial decisions on behalf of the ward; and
  • Guardian ad litem where a guardian is appointed by the court to represent the ward's interests in legal proceedings.

Who can Serve as a Guardian?

The probate court decides who is qualified to be appointed as a guardian for the ward. When choosing a guardian, the court will look at multiple factors that vary by case. These typically include:

  • The personal relationship between the ward and the guardian;
  • The unique needs of the ward;
  • The ward’s opinion about who should be guardian, if they are able to express an opinion;
  • The ability of the guardian to understand and meet the needs of the ward;
  • The location where the guardian and ward live;
  • Previous successful experience acting in a guardianship role;
  • Possible concerns related to the intent or motives of the guardian that might not be in the best interests of the ward;
  • The length of time that a guardianship is needed; and
  • The opinion of the ward's family, friends or caretakers about who should be appointed.

How Long Can a Guardianship Last?

The length of a guardianship depends on the probate court’s opinion of what is in the bests interests of the ward. If a guardianship is appointed over a child, it will typically end when the child turns 18 years old.

At any point during a guardianship, particularly in limited guardianship situations, the ward may petition the probate court to end the guardianship if they feel that having a guardian is no longer necessary.

A guardianship may also end if a guardian resigns, the court determines that a guardianship is no longer necessary, or when the ward dies. Some types of guardianships, such as short-term guardianships, are limited to a specific time period from the beginning of the appointment and will end automatically.

How Do You Obtain or are Awarded a Guardianship?

The process for obtaining a guardianship varies by state. A petition for guardianship appointment must be filed with the probate court in the county where the ward lives. Most probate courts will require that a hearing be held and attended by the potential guardian and the ward.

At the hearing, the probate judge will evaluate the case and listen to the interested parties. The ward is typically entitled to be represented by an attorney at the hearing, if necessary. After the hearing, the court will decide whether to grant the guardianship.   

Do I Need a Lawyer to File for a Guardianship?

If you are looking to be appointed as a guardian, you may be able to successfully navigate the probate court process on your own. There is a significant amount of paperwork associated with the guardianship application process, and the guardianship hearing may be confusing or intimidating to a potential guardian.

For the best outcome in your case, you may want to consider speaking with a family lawyer who handles guardianship cases. A lawyer will be able to help you with the application paperwork. They can also explain to the court why a guardianship is necessary and why you should be appointed by the court to be a guardian of the ward.