What’s the Difference Between Custody and Guardianship in New Jersey?

a judge's gavel with cardboard cutouts of 2 parents and a child in front of it

Family law can be complex, and legal definitions can be a bit mystifying when it comes to the care of a child. Many consider the idea of custody and guardianship to be one and the same. However, these terms describe separate arrangements, and the main differentiator lies in the child’s parentage. Custody orders pertain to a parent’s care of a child, whereas guardianship is appointed by the court to an individual who is not the child’s biological parent. In certain situations, a child may be under the guardianship of one person while in the custody of their parents.

What Is Child Custody?

Custody is granted to a child’s parents. There are two different types of custody in New Jersey: legal and physical. In the lion’s share of situations, parents share joint legal custody of their children as opposed to sole custody. Legal custody means they share in the decision-making process for substantial aspects of their lives, such as their education and any necessary medical treatments. Physical custody refers to who the child resides with. Typically, this is designated as the parent of primary residents or the parent of alternate residence depending on visitation — known as “parenting time” in the Garden State — with each parent.

In certain cases, a parent may have joint physical custody of their child and be allowed to live with them for some periods and spend time with them. However, that parent is not legally permitted to make official decisions on the child’s behalf — which is a matter of legal custody.

What Is Legal Guardianship?

Typically, guardianship refers to anyone assuming the legal duties of caring for a child who is not the child’s parent. A guardian can authorize medical care, make educational decisions, and care for the child’s day-to-day needs. A legal guardian acts in the child’s best interest when the child’s parents cannot do so due to death, incapacitation, incarceration, or other dire circumstance. These individuals are typically family members, such as an aunt, uncle, or grandparent.

Based on the particular situation, unique types of guardianship may be in play. Adults with severe handicaps may require a legal guardian to care for them and act on their behalf — an arrangement known as adult guardianship. Temporary and emergency guardianships apply to certain scenarios, as well. Temporary guardianships are appointed for a specific period of purposes, whereas an emergency may prompt the court to appoint a guardian if the individual requiring care faces an immediate risk of harm or is otherwise unable to make legal decisions on their own behalf.

Guardianship and Parental Rights

If a court assigns one, the guardian will have custody of the child, but parents do not relinquish their rights. They preserve them unless the parents terminate their legal parental rights to the child.

Expert Legal Guidance for Custody and Guardianship at Keith Family Law

Legal guardianship can get complicated, especially if custody arrangements are a factor. It is crucial to understand what legal guardianship means if you intend to assume the role of a legal guardian for a child or if you’re involved in a custody dispute. No matter your particular circumstances, turn to our family law attorneys in New Jersey for informed legal counsel.

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