The Difference Between Temporary Guardianship and Custody: (A Lawyer Explains)

When it comes to child care and legal responsibilities, understanding the difference between temporary guardianship and custody is crucial. 

This article will discuss the distinctions between temporary guardianship and custody, providing you with the knowledge you need to navigate this complex subject matter.

Tim’s Legal Tip: Temporary guardianship and custody share a common goal—ensuring the child’s welfare. Temporary guardianship refers to the legal authority granted to an individual who is not a child’s parent to care for the child for a specific period. Custody, on the other hand, is a long-term arrangement that determines the primary caregiver and decision-maker for the child.

What is a Temporary Guardianship

Temporary guardianship is a specific form of guardianship established for a limited period. It is often implemented to address a temporary absence, incapacity, or unavailability of the child’s parents or legal guardians. 

Temporary guardianship provides a legal framework for another responsible adult (not a parent) to care for the child during this period.

Purpose and Duration of Temporary Guardianship

Temporary guardianship serves as a temporary solution to ensure the well-being and safety of the child when the parents or legal guardians cannot do so. 

It can be established due to various circumstances, such as military deployment, medical emergencies, or travel commitments. The duration of temporary guardianship is typically predetermined and specified in a legal document.

Legal Rights and Responsibilities

During temporary guardianship, the appointed guardian assumes certain legal rights and responsibilities. 

These include making medical decisions for the child, enrolling them in school, providing consent for activities, and ensuring their general welfare. 

The guardian acts in the child’s best interests, carrying out their duties until the temporary guardianship period ends.

What Are The Differences Between a Temporary Guardianship and Custody?

Temporary guardianship and custody differ in purpose, duration, and permanency. There are four main differences between temporary guardianship and custody. Those differences are the following:

1. The Duration of a Temporary Guardianship

The first striking difference lies in their duration. Temporary guardianship is, as its name implies, a temporary arrangement, typically valid for a specified period, often not exceeding a year. 

Custody, in contrast, pertains to long-term arrangements set by a court until the child reaches legal adulthood.

2. Legal Decision-Making Authority Under a Temporary Guardianship

Another significant difference lies in the decision-making authority. In custody, parents generally retain the right to make decisions for their children. 

In temporary guardianship, this decision-making power is transferred to the guardian.

3. Legal Rights under a Temporary Guardianship 

Temporary guardianship does not take away a parent’s rights. It merely allows another individual to temporarily care for and make decisions regarding the child. However, custody can affect parental rights depending on whether full or shared custody.

The rights under custody are generally more extensive than temporary guardianship. Guardians are appointed to safeguard the child’s interests, while custody involves comprehensive parental rights and responsibilities.

4. Court Involvement

Establishing temporary guardianship typically requires a court hearing. Since a person other than a parent is given legal authority to act on behalf of and make decisions for the child, a judge will oversee the guardianship and issue an order granting decision-making authority to the guardian. 

Parents can agree upon custody during a divorce. If parents agree, the court will allow them to draft their own parenting plan. The court will review the parenting plan to ensure it is in the child’s best interest. 

How is a Temporary Guardianship Established? 

A temporary guardianship is established through a court order. Here are the steps that you generally need to follow:

  • Identify a suitable guardian: The first step is to identify someone who can serve as the child’s guardian. This person should be reliable, trustworthy, and capable of caring for a child.
  • File a petition in court: Next, you must file a petition for temporary guardianship in your local family court. The petition should include information about the child, the proposed guardian, and why temporary guardianship is necessary.
  • Attend a court hearing: After the petition is filed, the court will schedule a hearing. The judge will review the case at the hearing and decide based on the child’s best interests.
  • Get a court order: If the judge approves the petition, they will issue a court order granting temporary guardianship. This order gives the guardian legal authority to care for the child and make decisions on their behalf.

Benefits and Limitations of Temporary Guardianship

Temporary guardianship provides a practical solution for ensuring a child’s care and safety during their parents’ or legal guardians’ absence or incapacity. 

It allows for continuity and consistency in the child’s life and provides a stable and nurturing environment. However, temporary guardianship may be limited, as it is time-bound and may not address long-term needs or decision-making authority.

How is a Temporary Guardianship Terminated?

Temporary guardianship automatically terminates upon the expiration of the agreed-upon duration. It can also end if the child’s parents or legal guardians regain their ability to care for the child or the court determines that temporary guardianship is no longer necessary.


Custody refers to the legal right and responsibility of caring for a child more permanently. It involves the physical and legal aspects of the child’s upbringing, including their day-to-day care, living arrangements, and decision-making authority.

3 Types of Custody

There are different types of custody arrangements, including sole custody, joint custody, and split custody. 

  • Sole custody grants one parent or guardian the primary responsibility for the child’s care.
  • Joint custody involves shared responsibility between both parents or guardians. 
  • Split custody, on the other hand, is a custody arrangement that involves multiple children and awards sole custody divided between the two parents. In some cases, the children live permanently with one parent. In others, the children rotate residing with each parent in equal amounts. Split custody is generally disfavored by judges because it’s generally not considered beneficial to split up siblings. 

Legal Rights and Responsibilities When Awarded Custody

In a custody arrangement, the parent or guardian with custody has the authority to make decisions regarding the child’s education, healthcare, and general welfare. They are responsible for providing a stable and nurturing environment, ensuring the child’s physical and emotional well-being.

Duration and Termination of Custody

Unlike temporary guardianship, custody arrangements are intended to be long-term or permanent. They can continue until the child reaches a certain age, usually when they become legal adults. 

Custody can be terminated or modified by a court order if there is a significant change in circumstances or if it is deemed in the child’s best interests.

Benefits and Limitations of Custody

Custody arrangements offer stability and consistency for the child’s upbringing, providing a clear framework for parental responsibilities and decision-making. 

Custodial parents have the authority to make legal decisions for the child, ensuring their well-being and development. However, custody arrangements may also have limitations, as they can be subject to disputes, changes, or modifications based on evolving circumstances.

Factors Considered By a Court When Determining Between Guardianship and Custody

Courts consider various factors to determine whether temporary guardianship or custody is appropriate. These may include the following: 

  • The child’s best interests.
  • The ability of the parents or legal guardians to fulfill their responsibilities.
  • The stability of the environment provided and the child’s relationship with potential guardians or custodial parents.


Q. Can a temporary guardian become a permanent guardian?

Yes, a temporary guardian can become a permanent guardian if the court determines it is in the child’s best interests and the parents can still not care for the child.

Q. Can temporary guardianship be extended? 

Temporary guardianship can be extended if the circumstances that led to its establishment persist beyond the initially agreed-upon duration. 

However, any extension would require the parties’ consent and the court’s approval.

Q. Can a parent regain custody after temporary guardianship?

A parent can regain custody after temporary guardianship ends or is terminated. They must demonstrate to the court that they can now care for their child.

Q. Can a temporary guardian decide on the child’s medical treatment?

The powers of a temporary guardian vary by jurisdiction, but generally, they can make decisions regarding the child’s medical treatment.

Q. How does a court determine the best interests of the child?

Courts consider several factors when determining the child’s best interests, including the child’s age, health, emotional ties with parents and siblings, parents’ ability to provide stable, loving environments, and sometimes, the child’s wishes.


Understanding the difference between temporary guardianship and custody is crucial for anyone embarking on either path. Although the journey may be challenging, with sound legal guidance, a clear focus on the child’s best interests always leads to the best outcome. 

Consulting with a legal professional is advisable when navigating these complex matters.

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Tim McDuffey is a practicing attorney in the State of Missouri. Tim is a licensed member of the Missouri Bar and Missouri Bar Association.

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