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Is there someone in your family who is having a hard time caring for him- or herself? Maybe someone is being exploited or you are concerned about the decisions they’re making. Or perhaps you’re going through a divorce and you have concerns about your ex-spouse’s ability to care for your child if you were to die. Here is a guide to determining when guardianship is the right option for your family and how you can go about choosing a guardian you’re comfortable with.

What Is a Guardian?

A guardian is a person who makes decisions for an adult or child who is unable to do so on his her own. Most children are raised by their parents, but if neither parent is unable to care for the child through illness, death, or incapacity, then someone else will need to do it. That person is a guardian.

For adults, choosing a guardian is considered when the individual is mentally or otherwise unable to make decisions. For example, an elderly person with dementia might need a guardian to make financial decisions and help them retain a good quality of life. The person who needs a guardian is called a ward.

What Are the Responsibilities of a Guardian?

Depending on the ward’s needs, the guardian will be making decisions. They can range from financial to legal. Medical needs are also often involved; if an adult ward needs medical care, the guardian will be the one to arrange for the care itself, give permission for procedures and medications, and arrange for payment. They’ll also manage the ward’s finances; the ward might have an income from social security, a pension, an inheritance, or some other source.

The guardian of a child will usually be the one to take physical care of the child. They’ll provide a place to live, transportation to school, clothing, food, and all of the other requirements. Ideally, they’ll also provide loving guidance as the child adjusts to his or her new life and navigates their path toward adulthood. Choosing a guardian carefully will allow your loved one the best possible life if you’re no longer around to do so.

When Is a Guardian Chosen for a Child?

In many cases, choosing a guardian is done by the parents while they are still able to care for the child. For example, if you set up a guardianship for your child now, then if you were to die or otherwise become incapacitated while he or she is still a minor, the child would go to live with the person you have chosen.

Other times, a judge will be the one choosing a guardian. If you are unable to care for your child and you haven’t designated a guardian, then family members who would like to care for your child can request that they are appointed guardian. If no one steps up, the judge can appoint someone else. It’s in your child’s best interest for you to go about choosing a guardian now before the need arises.

It’s important to note that unless there are extenuating circumstances, the child’s other biological parent will generally be able to take the child and raise him or her. This is true even if you have sole custody. If there is some reason why you believe your child would not be safe being raised by his or her other parent, it’s important to talk to a legal resource professional to find out how you can avoid having that happen.

When Is a Guardian Chosen for an Adult?

If an adult is or becomes mentally or, in some cases, physically incapacitated, then a guardian might be appointed by the court. This might happen if a mentally disabled adult’s parents die and there is no one appointed to care for him or her. If you have a mentally disabled child who is nearing adulthood or who is an adult, choosing a guardian now in the event of your death will be better than allowing the court to make the decision.

Sometimes, the elderly or those suffering from dementia might need a guardian to keep them safe. Guardianship for adults is different from the guardianship of children; a guardian does not have the authority to make any and all decisions. For example, they might only have power of attorney for certain decisions and the ward might be able to make other decisions. One instance of this is when it comes time to admit the ward to a nursing home. The guardian may need to petition the court to allow this because they might be limited from making that decision on their own.

Considerations When Choosing a Guardian

If you are a parent choosing a guardian for your child in the event of your death, you will likely find the decision a difficult one to make. There are some considerations you can keep in mind that will help you to make the right choice:

    • Choose someone who has a similar parenting style to you. Consider what you find most important: Is it adherence to a particular religion? Homeschooling? Do you want your child to grow up in a home where the family travels or where they observe certain cultural celebrations and events? Think about whether the people on your list already (or will) do this.
    • Choose someone who is able to care for your child. What is the age of the person you’re considering? Is it likely they’ll still be healthy and able to care for your child when he or she is a teenager? Will they probably still be able to be supportive when your child is in his or her early 20s? Do they have the resources to care for a child?
    • Choose someone whom your child already feels comfortable with. Don’t choose a person who is a stranger or near-stranger to your child. Do you have someone in your life who already loves your child or who has spent a lot of time with them already?

Also, be sure to talk to your intended guardian ahead of time and give them some time to think about what you are asking. While anyone might say “yes” nonchalantly, ask that they seriously consider your request and whether they are up for the responsibility before committing to be your child’s guardian if something were to happen to you.

Choosing a guardian for your child or for an adult loved one who is no longer able to care for him- or herself can be a difficult task. Depend on the professionals at your legal resource center to help you find the resources needed to make these decisions.

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