A legal guardian is a person who has been court appointed to care for another person, and make decisions on their behalf. Essentially, a legal guardian assumes legal responsibility over another person. They have been granted the legal authority to care for their ward’s personal and property interests. Some of the decisions that a legal guardian may need to make on behalf of their ward include:
- Medical decisions;
- Financial decisions;
- Contract agreements; and
- Other legally binding statements.
Legal guardianship is usually utilized for incapacitated seniors, developmentally disabled adults, and minor children. Legal guardians for minors are the most common form of guardianship. The guardian acts as primary caretaker of the minor, and may be personally selected by the minor’s biological parents as opposed to being appointed by a court. Guardianship arrangements for minors are especially necessary when a child’s biological parents are no longer able to provide care for the child.
Guardianships are regulated by guardianship laws which dictate who can become a legal guardian. They also regulate the manner in which guardianship is to be carried out. Some examples of what courts look for when choosing a legal guardian to appoint include:
- The personal relationship between the ward and the proposed guardian;
- The unique needs of the ward, as well as their opinion about who should be their guardian;
- The ability of the proposed guardian to understand and meet the needs of the ward; and
- The length of time that a guardianship is needed.
In general, a legal guardian has the right to make legal decisions on behalf of their ward. As mentioned above, the right to make legal decisions can include a wide variety of decisions. These include where the ward lives, where to send the minor to school, and decisions regarding the ward’s medical care amongst other legal decisions.
The guardian’s responsibilities are also vast, as the guardian typically also has both legal and physical custody of the ward. As such, they must fulfill duties similar to those a parent would fulfill for their child.
Some examples of these responsibilities include:
- Providing food, clothing, and shelter for the ward;
- Maintaining their ward’s physical and emotional health; and
- Protecting the ward from safety hazards.
All guardians have a fiduciary duty to their ward. This means that they have a legal mandate to perform in a manner that is honest and responsible when managing their ward’s finances. They must act in good faith, and exercise good judgement. This means that the guardian is to use the same level of care and judgement with the ward’s estate as they would their own.
Additionally, they must keep their ward’s funds separate from their own personal accounts. Should the ward suffer a loss that was a direct result of the guardian’s breach of fiduciary duties, the guardian may be held legally responsible for the ward’s losses.
Some guardianships grant the guardian full decision making powers over the ward, while others limit the guardian to only financial or medical decisions. These different types of guardianships vary by state, but the most common types of guardianships include:
- Full Guardianships: These grant the guardian full decision making powers on behalf of their ward. Full guardianships are typically granted in cases where the ward is unable to make any healthcare, financial, or personal decisions;
- Limited Guardianships: Limited guardianships are granted by the court when the ward is capable of making some of their own decisions, especially concerning their personal care. However, the ward may still need assistance making more complex decisions, such as those related to finances, healthcare, or life changes;
- Co-Guardianships: These are granted when the court appoints two guardians to the same ward. This helps prevent any abuse of power by one of the guardians;
- Short Term or Temporary Guardianships: These are granted by the court when the ward is facing an emergency situation or is temporarily unable to make decisions on their own. The guardian holds their position until the circumstances that required a guardian is cured; and
- Guardian ad Litem: A guardian ad litem is a guardian appointed by the court to represent the ward’s interests during legal proceedings. Typically guardian ad litems are appointed in any cases that may affect a child’s legal rights.
As can be seen, there are many cases where guardianship is not permanent. It all depends on the order issued by the court, as well as the specific circumstances. Legal guardianship generally ends when the ward reaches the age of majority, which is typically eighteen years old. Guardianship may also end for other reasons, such as if the guardian themselves become incapacitated or the guardian resigns.
Further, some legal guardianships are designed to be temporary from the beginning. An example of this would be if the biological parents request the guardianship to be temporary, or if there is a pressing emergency. Additionally, at any point during a guardianship, especially in limited guardianship arrangements, the ward may petition the court to end the guardianship if they feel that having a guardian is no longer necessary.
As can be seen, legal guardianships are a serious matter. Therefore, you should consult with a well qualified and knowledgeable guardianship lawyer if you need assistance with appointing a legal guardian, or if you have been appointed as a ward’s legal guardian.
An experienced guardianship lawyer can help you understand the guardianship process, as well as ensure the ward’s best interests are being placed above all else. Additionally, they can represent you in court as needed.