What Is a Guardian?

A guardian is an individual who a judge or a will gives the legal responsibility to care for a child or an adult who does not have the capacity for self-care. The appointed individual is often responsible for both the care of the ward (the child or incapable adult) and that person's legal and financial affairs.

A guardian may also be called a "conservator" when referring to the same role performed for adults unable to care for themselves or their own affairs.

Key Takeaways

  • A guardian has been given the legal responsibility to care for a child or an adult who does not have the capacity for self-care.
  • A guardian may also be called a conservator when the role is performed for adults unable to care for themselves.
  • Parents will often name a guardian for their children in the case of the parents' death or other circumstance. 
  • Guardians are subject to scrutiny by the courts, and often must prepare financial statements documenting their management of the ward's finances.
  • Courts with limited jurisdictions, such as probate courts and family courts, usually handle guardianship issues.

Understanding Guardians

The guardian is usually either named or appointed in a will or a court of law by a judge. Parents will often name a guardian to their children in the event of the parents' death or inability to provide for the children. Guardians are governed by state and local laws and are the ward's fiduciary.

Because guardians exercise such extensive control over their wards, they are subject to scrutiny by the courts. Guardians often must prepare financial statements documenting that they have managed the ward's finances in the best interest of the ward. Guardianship issues are typically handled by courts with limited jurisdictions, such as probate courts and family courts.

Guardian vs. Power of Attorney

A guardianship is similar to a power of attorney in that both empower an agent to make legal, financial, and/or medical decisions for another person. However, there are important differences. An individual can choose to whom they give power of attorney and under what circumstances, while a guardian is court-appointed and may not have any say over the guardianship.

A guardian's powers may be more expansive, in that their court order nature means that third parties can be legally compelled to recognize their authority to act on behalf of the ward, but a guardian's decision is also subject to the court's approval. A power of attorney offers more flexibility, privacy, and control to the principal, and at a lower cost than the court costs associated with seeking a court-ordered guardianship.