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Guardianship refers to the condition in which one person has legal authority over another. It is most commonly thought of in terms of children, but anyone who is mentally incapacitated or otherwise unable to act on his own behalf can have a guardian. Guardians can be appointed by the court or a person — such as a parent — can obtain guardianship automatically through his relationship with the person in need of a guardian.
There are several types of guardianship in existence. Most parents have general guardianship rights over their children. This means they have physical, financial and legal custody over their children. They are able to control any assets their child has, they have their child in their presence and control where the child lives and goes, and they can make legal, medical and other such decisions on behalf of the child.
More limited guardianship arrangements also exist. For example, a young child star may make a lot of money and may wish to have someone besides his parents in charge of its management. As such, a guardian or trustee may be appointed to have control over his money, but his parents may still have general guardianship over the child and his physical presence.
The court may also appoint a guardian for a limited purpose if it believes that a parent is not acting in the best interests of the child. For example, some parents may have objections to various medical procedures. If such a procedure would save a child's life and the parents are unwilling to consent, the hospital or a concerned relative could seek medical guardianship rights over the child. The court would review the situation to determine whether the parent was truly acting in the best interests of the child or whether the child was being endangered; if it felt the child was being endangered, it might appoint someone else to act as a medical guardian.
In custody cases, a guardian may be appointed by a court to protect the interests of the child. This court-appointed individual, usually referred to as a guardian ad litum, would speak for the child — who was not yet legally able to speak for himself — in court and ensure that he had a voice. The guardian ad litum would, in this case, normally be an independent third party, such as a social worker.