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Adoption or Guardianship: What's the Difference?

Making the Decision to Become a Child’s Permanent Family

Having a permanent family and home can help children in two important ways.

  • A caring and loving family that is committed to providing a safe and permanent home promotes healthy growth and development and provides children a sense of belonging.
  • Children can gain confidence in their family’s ability to function independently without feeling that someone from the child welfare system (social worker, foster care licensing, guardian ad litem or judge) could disrupt their family’s life.

Without permanency, children often experience doubt, uncertainty, and hesitancy about where they belong and who is going to care for them. Placement with a permanent family permits the child welfare system to close a child’s case and allows the family to raise the child as a member of the family until adulthood and to make important decisions without governmental involvement.

Families face an important decision when a child in their care needs a permanent family. Every foster family’s situation and every child’s situation are different. To make an informed decision about the permanency option for a child in their care, foster parents and prospective guardians need to understand the legal and financial differences between foster care, adoption, and guardianship.

Foster parents who never intend to become guardians or adopt also need to understand the permanency options to assist children in their care with a transition to a permanent family.

Adoption or Guardianship?
What’s the Difference?

Adoption and guardianship offer children and parents two similar paths to permanency. Both options provide permanent caregivers with many of the same legal rights as birth parents. However, adoption is a lifetime relationship that gives the child all of the legal benefits of a child born into the family. While guardianship builds family relationships that can last a lifetime, the legal relationship established by a juvenile court guardianship ends when the child turns 18 and is considered an adult. This is one reason why adoption is considered to be a more permanent, lifetime commitment than guardianship. Another important difference between the two permanency options concerns the birth parents rights. For a child to be adopted, the rights of the birth parents must be legally terminated, voluntarily surrendered, or the birth parents must have signed a consent to the adoption. With guardianship, the birth parents rights do not have to be legally terminated.

With both adoption and guardianship, the permanent caregivers should realize that the child’s birth parents and siblings may continue to be an important part of the child’s life. Depending on what is in the best interest of the child, the birth family connections can be maintained with ongoing contacts after an adoption or guardianship.

The following chart outlines some of the legal differences between adoption and guardianship.

adoption versus guardianship

Questions to Help Families Who Are Considering Guardianship

1. If the child cannot return home to the child’s parents, can I commit to a lifetime relationship with the child?

2. Am I capable of caring for the child without state services, and am I able to access services on my own?

3. Do I have support from my family, friends, and community, needed to raise the child to adulthood?

4. Am I willing and able to work with the school to address the child’s educational needs?

5. Am I willing and able to continue providing a safe and stable home environment for the child until age 18?

6. Am I confident in my ability to manage family issues such as illness and child-rearing, emotional, and behavioral problems?

7. Am I free of health conditions that would significantly limit my ability to care for the child?

8. Am I willing to accept legal and financial responsibility for the child?

9. Is the child well integrated into my family?

10. Am I comfortable changing the legal status of our family relationships?

11. Am I willing to pursue adoption or guardianship of the child?

Yes – If your answers are all “yes,” consider guardianship of the child in your care, and discuss your decision with the case worker.

No - If several of your answers are "no," discuss those issues with the case worker.


Sourced from Iowa Department of Human Services at (no longer available) on February 20, 2012.  Content reviewed on July 11, 2017.