A guardian is a person who has the responsibility for an individual's well being, of his or her estate or of both. A guardian may be a natural guardian, appointed by the parents of a ward (child or incapacitated adult) or appointed by the court. Natural guardians are the parents of a child. Unless the parent's rights have been terminated or they have given up their parental rights, parents are considered joint guardians of their child. If one parent is deceased or has given up his or her rights, the remaining parent is the sole guardian. Commonly, parents (natural guardians) also appoint a guardian of their child (or children). This is usually done in the parents' will or other legal documents. If the parents do not determine a guardian of their child and one is needed, the court will appoint a guardian.
When the court creates a guardianship, it will consider specific criteria to aid in making the determination. Some of the criteria may include financial knowledge, education, background, mental and physical health and the location in which he or she resides. A court-appointed guardian is usually for a specified period of time. Generally, the guardianship will last until the ward reaches the age of majority (18) or when the adult ward becomes competent (the ward of the guardianship is not always a minor; the ward may also be an incompetent adult). Prior to these events, the court may have a hearing to determine the progress of the guardianship, if it should continue and how long it should continue in the future.
There are also some instances where a limited guardianship is appropriate. A limited guardianship is valid in some jurisdictions, but not all, and gives the ward some responsibility for his or her own affairs (affairs may be personal care or financial control). The court will determine what responsibilities a ward may be able to handle themselves; the other responsibilities will be managed by the guardian and usually for a specific period of time.
Guardian ad litem is a term people often hear and associate with a guardianship. However, a guardian ad litem is different from a guardian. A guardian ad litem is trained for his or her job and appointed by the court. The guardian ad litem's role is to protect the interests of the ward (minor child or incompetent adult). The situation is usually one where there is litigation and the ward's rights need to be protected by a neutral third-party.
Since the guardian ad litem is trained and compensated for the job, they have specific obligations that must be accomplished. Some of the guardian ad litem's responsibilities are looking out for the ward's best interests, remaining impartial and professional during the course of their role, investigating the facts of the case, creating records for the court based on their investigations and observations and remaining qualified for the position. The duties of the guardian ad litem end when the litigation is completed.
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