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Guardianships and adoptions — what’s the difference?

Many residents of Massachusetts have considered the possibility of becoming a guardian for a minor child or adopting a minor child. Each set of potential parents has its own expectations and wishes about how this addition to their family will affect them. One of the first tasks is to understand the legal differences between an adoption and a guardianship.

The basic difference is the legal relationship between the new parents and the child’s birth parents. In an adoption, the order for adoption has the effect of severing all legal ties between the birth parents and the child. In a guardianship, the birth parents remain as the child’s legal parents while the guardians take over virtually all of the day-to-day care of the child. A guardianship can be appointed if the child’s birth parents are unfit, unavailable or dead, while an adoption requires the birth parent to make an affirmative and explicit decision to give up all legal rights to care for the child to the prospective adoptive parents, unless the state has already terminated these rights.

A guardian will provide almost exclusive medical care, upbringing and education for the child. However, the birth parents may wish to maintain a relationship with the child subject to court oversight. In an adoption, the adoptive parents accept 100% responsibility for the child and are allowed to manage all the child’s assets. Money is a crucial question for anyone who wants to be a guardian. A guardian can manage a limited amount of the child’s money for the child’s education, welfare and health. A guardian may also be eligible to receive up to $5,000 per year to spend on the child’s behalf.

A guardianship terminates when the child reaches 18; an adoption is permanent and does not automatically expire. Those who need more information on this topic are encouraged to seek professional guidance.