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Guardianship vs. Custody vs. Adoption

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

The terms guardianship, custody, and adoption often confuse people as their differences are nuanced and a bit complicated. This article addresses the basic concepts you may want to be aware of if you are considering adoption or guardianship for your child.

What Is Custody?

Custody is a legal arrangement that stipulates who maintains and cares for the minor child. This usually happens when parents divorce or separate.

Custody can either be legal or physical. Legal custody relates to the parent's ability to make decisions for the child. These include your child's religion, education, and healthcare. Physical custody refers to where your child lives.

What Is a Guardianship?

If you are a guardian of a child, you will have the rights and responsibilities to care for the child until they reach majority age. The court will use the "best interest of the child" standard to decide whether it is in the best interests of the child to have you as a guardian.

Parents can be guardians, but a guardianship is often set up because a minor child needs someone else to make legal decisions for them. In a guardianship, parents retain their parental rights and responsibilities.

Findlaw's guardianship page provides helpful resources if you want to know more about the process.

Differences Between Custody and Guardianship

The main difference between the two is that custody focuses more on the parent-child relationship while guardianship involves finding help for people who are not mentally or physically capable of taking care of themselves.

What Is Adoption?

Unlike guardianship, adoption terminates the biological parents' rights. Instead, the adoptive parents have exclusive custody rights over the child.

In addition, adoption is a permanent arrangement and can't be reclaimed by the biological parents.

Adoption or Guardianship?

Ultimately, as a parent, it is your decision to consider whether adoption or guardianship is best for your child. The following table outlines the main differences between adoption and guardianship, which could help you make an informed decision.

Adoption Guardianship
  • Severs the legal rights of the biological parents.
  • Legal rights of the parents remain intact.
  • Adoption is permanent.
  • Guardianship is temporary.
  • The child can inherit from his/her adoptive parents.
  • Guardians must stipulate a provision in their will.
  • The parent is relieved of any child support obligation.
  • The parent may be required to provide child support.

Additional Resources

Considering Adoption or Guardianship? Talk to an Attorney.

Whichever route you choose to take, both adoption and guardianship require awareness of the laws and extensive research. In addition, states follow different procedures. Therefore, it is important to speak to a family law attorney before moving forward.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified child custody attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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