Custody vs Guardianship: What's The Difference?

Custody vs Guardianship: What’s The Difference?

by Dec 11, 2019Child Custody, Family Law

To those new or unfamiliar with the nuances of family law, custody and guardianship may seem like an interchangeable term for the same legal concept. However, while there are some similarities between the two, it’s important to understand that there are distinct differences between custody vs guardianship.

How Custody And Guardianship Are Different

Legally speaking, custody vs guardianship comes down to the level of responsibility and decision-making authority provided in either role. The primary differences are:

  • The decision-making authority given to the adult in the relationship
  • Who is awarded custody vs who is authorized to be a guardian
  • The duration of the legal relationship
  • Who can award custody or appoint a guardian

In general, being awarded custody (AKA becoming a legal custodian) of a child is the role that has more legal authority and is the longer-term commitment.

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Custody vs Guardianship Legal Authority

If you are awarded legal custody of a child (which is different than being granted physical custody only), you have the legal authority to make decisions regarding the child’s medical care, education, legal rights, and other choices relating to their long-term and day-to-day lifestyle.

In contrast to a legal custodian, guardianship is somewhat more limited to which actions are permitted on behalf of the child. If you become a child’s guardian, you may be allowed to control the day-to-day decisions to keep the child safe and secure, but you will likely not be allowed to make long-term decisions that have a more permanent effect.

Who Can Be A Custodian Or Guardian?

In California, child custody is typically only granted to one or both of a child’s parents. If a child’s parents become temporarily incapable of caring for their child, a guardian will be appointed in the interim to look after the child. If or when one or both parents can resume responsibility, they can take custody of their child back from the interim guardian.

When appointing a guardian, the courts typically prefer that the role be filled by either immediate family (aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.) or family friends who have a pre-existing relationship with the child.


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