What is the Difference Between Custody and Guardianship?

What is the Difference Between Custody and Guardianship?

Custody and guardianship both allow someone else to care for a minor child. The main difference is how they’re set up. Keep reading to find out more.

What is Custody?

Custody is a family court order that allows someone to care for a minor child. One of the most common uses of custody is in divorce cases where the court will decide if the parents share joint custody, one will have primary custody, or, in rare cases, only one will have custody. A parent may also lose custody in cases of abuse or neglect.

What is Guardianship?

Guardianship comes from the probate court rather than family court. The guardian has similar powers to a parent or another person with custody. Guardianship may be used when both parents pass away or when both parents don’t have the physical or mental capacity to care for their child any longer.

Guardianship can also be used in the case of an adult who due to illness, injury, or disability is unable to care for himself or herself.

What’s the Difference Between Joint and Physical Custody and Guardianship?

Custody arrangements are often divided into physical and legal custody. Physical custody means a parent has the right to spend time with a child such as during visitation periods. Legal custody means a parent has the authority to make decisions over things like healthcare and education. With the trend towards awarding joint custody, most parents share both physical and legal custody, but this may not always be the same.

A guardianship is a legal arrangement, although the guardian often will also take in the child physically. If the guardianship is temporary, such as while a parent is in the hospital or jail, the guardian may be limited to making day-to-day decisions for the child during that time rather than having the same authority for more permanent decisions as a parent or someone with permanent custody would.

How Long Do Custody and Guardianship Arrangements Last?

Custody arrangements usually last until the age of majority. The parents or another interested party may request a modification of custody if there has been a significant change in circumstances.

Guardianships can also be permanent until the age of majority, but they may also be temporary. For example, a parent who is serving overseas or going in for a surgery may appoint a temporary guardian.

Can There Be Both Custody and Guardianship?

In most situations, guardianship is only used when both parents are unable to care for a child. If there is joint custody and something happens to one parent, the other parent will usually take on full custody at least until the other parent recovers. If something happens to both parents or the other parent is temporarily or permanently too far away to take on a greater role, the court may appoint a guardian. If either parent becomes able to take on full custody, the court would usually end the guardianship.

How Do Custody and Guardianship Start?

Custody often starts as one of the decisions a judge makes in a divorce case. The judge has the final say and decides what’s in the best interests of the child. The parents can ask for a certain arrangement, but even if both parents are in complete agreement, the judge may opt for a different course of action.

Custody can also arise out of an abuse or neglect case. Terminating or reducing parental rights is a serious decision, and the court will give anyone who such allegations have been made against the chance to answer the allegations. However, custody cases are not criminal trials, and the judge’s ultimate role is to further the best interests of the child.

Guardianship is also overseen by the court, but the process is slightly different. If a parent who is currently of sound mind and able to care for his or her child needs to appoint a temporary guardian, the court will almost always approve that choice. Parents can also nominate a potential guardian in case they are ever incapacitated. This choice is not automatic, since the court will want to check that the nominated guardian is able to currently serve in the role when needed, but the judge gives the nomination great weight. In cases where someone becomes incapacitated without a nominated guardian, the court will appoint a guardian after listening to the recommendations of family members and other interested parties.

How is Adoption Different Than Guardianship?

Adoption can be similar to permanent guardianship in many practical daily aspects, but there are important legal differences. First, if the parents are still living, adoption permanently ends their parental rights, while guardianship does not. A living parent who appoints a guardian may still have a legal obligation to provide financial support for their child, while an adopted child is the sole responsibility of the adopting parents. Finally, the child doesn’t have any automatic rights to inherit from a guardian but do from adoptive parents the same as a biological child.

Because of the permanence of adoption, it would generally only be part of your estate plan in case you pass away. For situations where there is a chance of recovery, you would want to use a guardianship.

Can Divorced Parents Nominate a Guardian?

Since the courts will default to another parent with custody before a guardian, nominating a guardian when the parents are divorced is more complicated. If both parents can agree to nominate the same guardian, such as a godparent, the court would honor that nomination if something happened to both parents. If each parent nominated a different guardian in their estate planning documents, it would first depend on which parent last had custody. For example, if something happened to the mother, the father took custody, and then something happened to the father, the court would start with the guardian the father nominated. However, both sides of the family would be able to appear in court and ask for a different guardian, and the court would act in the best interests of the child.

What About Grandparents?

In most situations, grandparents don’t have automatic legal rights to care for their grandchildren. This doesn’t mean the children can’t spend a week with grandma and grandpa, but grandparents don’t have the authority to make important legal decisions. If something happened to the parents, schools, doctors, and others couldn’t automatically treat the grandparents as guardians.

Of course, in many families, having the grandparents step in would be best for everyone. Judges understand this and favor awarding custody or guardianship in the right situations. You just need to make the appropriate legal arrangements rather than assuming the grandparents could automatically step in.

How Do You Terminate Custody or Guardianship?

In most custody cases, the more appropriate course of action is to request a modification of custody due to a significant change in circumstances. However, the other parent or another person may petition for termination of custody in cases of abuse or neglect.

Where guardianship is voluntary, such as a parent appointing a temporary guardian while they are away, the parent can terminate the guardianship at virtually any time for virtually any reason. Where the parent is incapacitated, members of the family may petition the court stating why the current guardian isn’t fulfilling his or her duties or why a new guardian would be better for the child.

What Happens if a Guardian Dies?

If a guardian dies or is otherwise unable to fulfill his or her duties, the court will obviously end the guardianship. However, the guardian is not treated as a parent for the purposes of appointing a new guardian. Instead of the guardian nominating a successor guardian, the court will look back to see if the parent nominated an alternate guardian. Otherwise, the judge will again listen to any recommendations from family members in trying to determine the best interests of the child.

Do You Need an Attorney?

It can be a good idea to have an attorney help you to properly establish a guardianship to care for your child should the unthinkable happen to you. To learn more about what you need to do, talk to one of the experienced estate planning attorneys at Lilac City Law. We’re conveniently located in Spokane and serve the surrounding communities.

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How To Prevent My Child from Becoming a Ward of the Court

How To Prevent My Child from Becoming a Ward of the Court

If something happens to you and you’re unable to care for your children, the court system may step in. Making a child a ward of the court is only a last resort. If you’ve already made other arrangements, the court system would prefer to honor those arrangements as long as they account for your children’s best interests.

What is a Ward of the Court?

A ward of the court is a child who is under the care of the court system. The court monitors the child’s education, healthcare, finances, and other needs. The court may appoint a guardian for the child, or the child may be placed into foster care.

When Can a Child Become a Ward of the Court?

A child can become a ward of the court when their parents are unable to care for them. This can happen involuntarily in cases of abuse or neglect. In an estate planning context, it may be due to the death of the parents or an incapacitating illness or injury.

This process isn’t ideal for the children or their families, so it’s only used as a backup plan. If there are other arrangements, such as a nominated guardian who has the financial ability to care for the child, the court would rather entrust the care of the child to that person under the court’s supervision rather than having the state take responsibility for the child.

What Happens if Something Happens to the Parents?

If a child’s parents suffer a sudden accident or injury, a number of legal processes will begin. If the parents never return to pick up their children at school or some other location, the adults there will try to reach the emergency contacts the parents previously provided. If they can’t reach any family members or friends to take temporary care of the child, they may notify police or child protective services.

While the preferred option is to get the children with someone they know as quickly as possible, that is only a temporary solution. Without prior planning by the parents, they won’t have the legal authority to make important decisions for the children or even to maintain custody without a separate court process.

If there is no one willing or able to take care of the children, they may be brought to a shelter or placed into foster care.

Can a Parent Stop a Child from Becoming a Ward of the Court?

If you’re charged with abuse or neglect, you have due process rights to protect your parental rights and can work with an attorney who practices in that area to maintain custody. If you die or become incapacitated, it’s simply impossible to go to court and fight for your children. Since it’s this latter scenario that you’re trying to prevent through estate planning, the only way to prevent your child from becoming a ward of the court is to plan ahead.

How to Decide Who Takes Care of Your Children

If you want to decide who takes care of your children instead of having a court do it, there are a few steps you need to take.

Update Your Emergency Contacts

Schools, daycares, and anyone else who takes care of your children for the day will usually ask for a list of people who are authorized to pick up your children. This should include who should pick them up in an emergency when you can’t be reached. Your children should also know the name and phone number of a relative or close friend to call in an emergency.

Keep in mind this is just a temporary arrangement. Even if your selected person is willing to care for your children indefinitely, they won’t have legal authority to make decisions for them at the doctor, school, bank, or other important places.

Nominate a Guardian

A more permanent solution is to nominate a guardian. A guardian takes full care of your children with the same authority of a parent. While the court technically selects the guardian, it will honor a parent’s wishes as long as the nominated guardian is suitable. If your chosen guardian lives out of state, you may wish to also nominate a local temporary or backup guardian until the permanent guardian can arrive or your family can arrange for the children to move to the permanent guardian.

Create a Power of Attorney

You can also create a power of attorney for your children. This is similar to a guardianship in that you can grant your selected agent full authority to do anything you could, but it’s more temporary. A power of attorney can help in cases of temporary illness or if something happens to one parent while the other is traveling away from home.

Appoint a Conservator

A conservator is similar to a guardian but only handles financial affairs while another guardian handles everything else. Some parents worry about a guardian misusing assets the parents left for their children’s benefit. While courts do monitor guardians, some financial abuses can go unnoticed by the court if another family member isn’t aware to bring it to the court’s attention. Appointing a separate conservator provides a more direct form of oversight.

How to Provide for Your Children Financially

When courts are reviewing who will care for children, they consider financial means. A family member who you would like to be the guardian may not have the income or assets needed to raise your children. While the guardian generally doesn’t legally have personal liability for childcare expenses, your children do need some source of money in order to not become wards of the court. You have several options to achieve this.

Life Insurance

Life insurance is one of the easiest ways to provide for your children. You can buy a policy that covers your future earnings or what you would have spent to raise them including college costs. You can name your children as beneficiaries, or have the money go into a trust on their behalf.

Will

You can also use your will to leave money to your children. Creating a will is a simple step, but it isn’t without pitfalls. A will has to go through probate, and if you have debts, your creditors may be entitled to repayment before your heirs receive anything. A will also provides the lowest degree of control over how the money you leave is spent.

Trust

A trust with your children as the beneficiary holds assets to your benefit during your life and then automatically transfers them to your children upon your death. Some of the major benefits of using a trust are that you can set it up to hold money until your children reach a certain age or to be used for a specific purpose.

Durable Financial Power of Attorney

You should also prepare for a long-term illness or other incapacitation. Life insurance, wills, and trusts only work after death. If you are still alive, your family will need the legal authority to access your funds to use for your children.

A durable power of attorney kicks in on a triggering event you specify such as your hospitalization. You can give your power of attorney access to your checking account, or you can maintain a separate savings account with funds for your children in case of an emergency. To the extent you have funds available, this guarantees money will be available for your children regardless of your family’s willingness or ability to cover their expenses.

What Do You to With Your Plan?

Once you have a plan in place, make sure the right people know about it. Keep copies of everything with your other important documents, and tell your family where to find them. Anyone you select to care for your children should have their own copies to present to legal authorities if needed.

In addition, give age-appropriate information to your children. This can be as simple as telling a toddler to call grandma if you don’t answer or telling an older child their uncle will take care of them if anything ever happens to you. After a certain age, this can actually be comforting to children who may have seen movies about orphans and have their own worries about becoming wards of the court.

Get Help from an Attorney

Preventing your child from becoming a ward of the court requires proactive planning. To make sure you don’t miss anything and everything will work as you expect, talk to an estate planning attorney at Lilac City Law. Contact us now to schedule a consultation.

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