Usually, only a parent of a child has the responsibility to decide about the care of the child. But sometimes a parent can no longer take care of their child. When this happens, a person that is not the parent can get legal guardianship.
Legal guardianship lets someone that is not a parent take care of the child. This person is the child's guardian. Once someone becomes a child's guardian, they cannot give up the responsibility unless a judge rules that:
- A parent is able to care for the child again;
- Someone else is willing to become the guardian; or
- The child turns 18.
To become a guardian, a person must:
- Be at least 18 years old
- Be a US resident (some courts will appoint undocumented immigrants)
- Be of sound mind
- Not be legally disabled
- Not have a felony conviction that involved harm or threat to a child
A person's blindness cannot by itself prevent them from becoming a guardian.
There are 4 types of guardianship of a child:
- Permanent legal guardian
- Standby guardian
- Short-term guardian (no need to go to court)
- Guardian ad litem (GAL)
A permanent legal guardian makes sure the child has medical care, food, clothes, shelter, and education. The guardian can make important decisions for the child, such as:
- Enrolling the child in school
- Asking for special education services
- Taking the child to the doctor
- Getting medical care
- Applying for any public benefits the child may get
- Following any court orders that involve the child
To become guardian, there must be a court case where the judge approves the guardianship. The court only has the ability to appoint a guardian if any of the following are true:
- The parent cannot make daily decisions for the child even though the parent still has parental rights;
- The parent was notified of the hearing but does not show up to the hearing;
- The parent chooses to give up physical custody of the child; or
- The parent agrees to the guardianship.
A standby gaurdian is a person who will take over as guardian when a parent or legal guardian can no longer care for a child. This usually happens when a parent or guardian gets sick or dies.
A parent or guardian must designate the standby guardian. This must be done in writing. The designation must be witnessed by at least 2 people who are at least 18 years old. A witness cannot also be the person trying to be the short-term guardian.
The standby guardian will not have any duties or authority to care for a child until any of the following things happen:
- The parent or legal guardian dies;
- The parent or legal guardian gives consent; or
- The parent or legal guardian can no longer make or carry out day-to-day child care decisions for the child.
When one of these happens, the standby guardian must be appointed as guardian by a judge. This is done by filing a petition in court.
The standby guardian will have the authority to act as full guardian for up to 60 days after the parent or guardian can no longer take care of the child. The standby guardian must go to court to apply for permanent legal guardianship or appoint someone else to be a legal guardian before the 60 day time period ends.
Standby guardianship could be a useful safety plan for immigrant parents who are undocumented. However, the court requires people involved in a case to have legal immigration status. This makes it difficult for families because parents who are undocumented are afraid to tell the judge about their immigration status.
A short-term guardian is responsible for the child for one year or less. The parent or guardian picks the short-term guardian. The parent or guardian does not need to go to court, but the agreement must be in writing.
The agreement must be witnessed by at least 2 people who are at least 18 years old. A witness cannot also be the person trying to be the short-term guardian.
The short-term guardianship can't last for more than one year. The written agreement should state the exact date the guardianship ends. Or the agreement can state the guardianship ends if an event happens. For example, if the parent returns from active military duty.
The short-term guardian does not have to be related to the child. A parent or guardian can end the short-term guardianship at any time. Only one short-term guardian can exist at any one time.
If the child has assets such as property or money, a short-term guardian will not have control over these. In order for a guardian to control these assets on the child's behalf, a permanent guardianship is needed.
Guardian ad litem (GAL)
A guardian ad litem, or a GAL, is someone a judge names to look into the facts of a case. Although it has the word "guardian" in the name, it is very different from the other types of guardianship. A GAL can recommend what would be in the child's best interests but cannot make any decisions for the child like a normal guardian. The GAL gives the judge their opinion about who should care for the child. The judge thinks about the GAL's opinion and then makes a final decision.
Updated: January 2018