What is the difference between adoption and guardianship? As someone who is caring for a child, this is important to understand. If you aren’t familiar with these terms, they might seem interchangeable. However, there are major legal distinctions that could affect the child’s best interests.

This article will cover the difference between adoption and guardianship. We’ll also help you determine which option would be the best for your family.

Adoption: A Lifelong Commitment

Adoption is a lifelong commitment. It involves new caregivers becoming the legal parents of a child. For this process to occur, the biological parents must give up their rights. They often do this voluntarily. This can happen if they no longer want to pay child support or be responsible for their care. This may also happen if they recognize that it’s what’s best for everyone.

Sometimes, adoptive parents have to petition a court to involuntarily terminate the biological parents’ rights. This occurs when they do not agree to give up their rights, but social services determines they are unfit to care for their child.

Once the biological mother and father no longer have their rights, you can proceed with a legal adoption.

Guardianship: A Temporary Situation

When you become a guardian, you are responsible for the child’s placement and care. You can sign documents and make legal decisions for them. However, when you are a guardian, the biological parents still maintain their rights. Like you, they can make legal decisions for the child. In most cases, guardianship is temporary. After a specified time, it’s expected that the child returns to their birth parents.

Can I Pursue Adoption as a Legal Guardian?

Let’s say you initially choose to become a guardian. Down the line, you realize it’s in everyone’s best interest for you to pursue the adoption of the child. This is possible and happens in many situations, but the biological parents’ rights still must be terminated first.

Two Other Important Differences

Let’s take a look at two other factors that differentiate adoption and guardianship.


By law, an adopted child is automatically entitled to an inheritance from their adoptive parents. In a guardianship situation, they would not automatically receive inheritance. The caregiver would have to specify if they want to leave an inheritance to the child in their will.

Child Support

When biological parents terminate their rights, they give up their responsibilities. This means they don’t have to pay child support. In a guardianship, biological parents are still responsible for paying child support.

Factors to Consider

So how do you know which option is the right decision? At the end of the day, consider what is best for the child. Some factors you should keep in mind include:

  • Age of the child
  • If the biological parents plan to resume care
  • How long biological parents will be unavailable
  • Commitment of the new caregivers

Example Scenarios

 Situations in which adoption is appropriate include:

  • The biological parents are incarcerated for several years.
  • The biological parents are choosing adoption.
  • A child lives with a foster family for a majority of their younger years.
  • Social services terminated the parents’ rights.

Situations in which guardianship might be the better option include:

  • The birth mother or father is deployed.
  • A teen mother who is giving guardianship to her mother so that she can finish school.
  • The child is in foster care and the parents intend to have the child returned.

As a reputable adoption agency, Destiny Adoption understands how complex this decision can be. For expert advice, call us today at 865-392-6261.


Author: Destiny Adoption Services

Destiny Adoption Services is proud to support and guide birth parents and adoptive families on the journey of adoption. We’re a state licensed nonprofit adoption agency with four decades of adoption experience, and our professional team of experts includes moms, adoptive moms and birth mothers who provide compassion combined with trusted resources and skills.