Legal definitions are often conflated, especially those that pertain to child support and custody arrangements. Family law is complex by nature, and when it comes to determining the best interest of the child, involved parties often hold different opinions. At times like this, the differences between guardianship vs. custody arrangements come to light and are the deciding factor in who retains physical custody. Let’s take a further look into these two definitions and discuss the legal ramifications each arrangement holds.

Guardianship vs. Custody – What Are Your Legal Rights?

While these two arrangements appear similar at the surface, legal guardians and custodians hold different rights and decision-making authority. Consequently, their relationships with a minor child, in the eyes of the law, vary greatly.

Legal Guardianship

By default, a child’s parents are their legal guardians. But, if they’re deemed unfit or absent by a family court, they can lose this appointment to another relative, or someone else close to the family. Death, incapacitation, or incarceration are all common reasons a person may lose legal guardianship. While the biological parents typically forfeit physical custody rights, they may still maintain legal parental rights unless suspended or revoked. This arrangement grants legal guardians the responsibility of the day-to-day care of a child. While the child lives with their guardians, their parents can still retain the responsibility to support their child and their actions. But, oftentimes, legal guardians assume both legal and physical custody.

At times, biological parents defer their guardian responsibilities to another individual for a short period of time for a specific purpose. This arrangement, referred to as “temporary guardianship,” is often determined to be in the child’s best interest when a parent is going through financial hardship or is physically or mentally ill.

Legal Custody

A child’s biological parents can retain either physical custody, legal custody, or both. A parent with physical custody has the legal right to have their child live with him or her. They assume the day-to-day responsibility of caring for their child. Parents with legal custody retain the ability to make major life decisions, such as medical care, religious upbringing, and education. Child custody arrangements often arise when two parents are splitting up or divorcing, and they need to determine who the child will live with. In joint custody cases, a family court also sets parameters for how often the child will spend time with each parent based on work schedules, housing arrangements, and the child’s needs.

As mentioned earlier, when a person becomes a legal guardian, they typically assume both the physical and legal responsibilities of the child. In child custody cases, there is greater variance in the arrangement. When physical custody and legal custody come into the mix, it usually involves the child’s parents. Guardians tend to be (but aren’t limited to) grandparents, aunts and uncles, or even older siblings.

Families can undergo a great deal of stress when a child is separated from one or both of their parents. The parties involved tend to think more of the immediate needs of their family without recognizing some of the long-term legal implications guardianship and custody arrangements impose, such as estate planning. No two families are alike, so estate plans vary greatly. If you’re planning to seek new custody or legal guardianship arrangements, be sure to consider your future. Schedule a consultation with a member of our legal team to better understand your rights as a legal guardian in estate planning.

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