What’s the Difference Between Custody and Guardianship in Michigan?

What’s the Difference Between Custody and Guardianship in Michigan?

Child custody and guardianship share many similarities. Words like “child custody” and “guardianship” are often used interchangeably, even though they are different concepts under Michigan law. 

However, they are two different statuses under Michigan law. For Michigan residents, it’s important to understand the key differences between these legal concepts.

Child Custody in Michigan

Custody in Michigan refers to both legal custody and physical custody. Physical custody refers to the right to have the child in your presence and have physical control over the child. Legal custody refers to the right to make decisions that affect the child’s upbringing, health, and education.

A parent’s custody rights continue until terminated by the court. Even when parents divorce, these rights may continue with a joint custody arrangement. 

In some cases, only one parent may have sole custody. Courts decide whether a parent can continue to have custody by examining what is in the child’s best interests and whether the parent can meet those interests.

Guardianship in Michigan

Guardianship is legal authority over a child granted to an adult who is not the child’s biological parent. An interested party can file a petition to become a legal guardian of a child, which will allow them to make important life decisions in the best interests of the child.

Guardianships are typically granted when a child’s parents are not able to care for the child. This could be a temporary arrangement, such as if a parent is recovering from a serious injury, or it could be permanent, such as if a child is an orphan.

Guardians only have as much authority over a child as the court grants them. Generally, a guardian is entrusted with the day-to-day care of the child but must get the court’s approval for major decisions that impact the child. They may or may not have physical custody of the child while acting as guardian for the child as well.

There are three types of child guardianships in the state of Michigan: Full, limited, and temporary guardianship.

Guardians have many of the powers and responsibilities that a parent normally would. Factors considered for guardianship are also similar to those for custody, such as guardian fitness, and guardianship orders may be modified by the court.

Other types of guardianships include guardian of the estate and guardian of the person, where the ward is a developmentally disabled person.

Differences Between Custody and Guardianship

Child custody typically refers to the care and custody of a child by one or both parents. A child’s biological parents are generally the ones with custody over that child.

Guardianship, on the other hand, deals with situations involving adults other than the parents providing some level of care for a child. A guardian is appointed by the court and is not a biological parent. Parents with custody can make all decisions concerning the care of their children, while a guardian’s authority may be more restricted.

For example, if two parents are seeking a custody determination in court, they would be involved in a custody dispute or determination. However, if the party seeking action from the court regarding a child is not the parents, the issue would be one of guardianship.

Custody and guardianship can also differ in regard to issues of duration, parental rights, and legal authority. A guardianship may be appropriate if the parents are deceased or incapable of making reasonable decisions for the child in question.

Parents are presumed to have custody of their children from the moment they are born, while guardians have no authority until a court gives it to them. Similarly, a parent has custody over their minor children until they either relinquish custody or a court terminates it. A guardianship, by contrast, lasts only as long as the court dictates.

Types of Child Custody in Michigan

There are two categories of child custody in Michigan: physical custody and legal custody.


When a parent lives with a child, they are said to have physical custody of the child. A parent who houses a child temporarily during a visitation also has physical custody.


Legal custody refers to a parent’s authority to make important life decisions in areas that directly impact the child’s life, such as healthcare, education, and religion.

Determining Child Custody

Courts take great care to concentrate on the best interests of the child when determining child custody. The Michigan Child Custody Act sets forth 12 factors judges are to consider when making custody decisions, including:

  • The capacity and willingness of each parent to provide love and guidance
  • The capacity of each parent to provide food and shelter
  • The child’s preference

The court will order joint or sole custody. With sole custody, a parent is solely responsible for the child, but this responsibility is shared if the custody is joint. As circumstances change, custody orders may be modified at the request of one or both parties.

Other Considerations When Determining Child Custody vs. Guardianship

There are other differences between parental custody and guardianship. For example, the right of parental custody comes with the responsibility to support the child financially. This continues even if a parent does not have physical custody of their child. Guardians, by contrast, cannot be ordered to pay child support.

When deciding on custody vs. guardianship, the courts will take into account how their decisions affect areas such as child support and visitation. Judges want to know how their potential rulings affect current custody agreements and other orders in place. They even consider how their decision might affect grandparents’ visitation.

Parents with custody rights also have the ability to control who has access to their child, such as grandparents and relatives. Guardians can also object, but only if the court has granted them that authority. Otherwise, a guardian would need to visit with the court about excluding certain people from a child’s life.

Consult an Experienced Michigan Attorney About the Child in Your Life and Your Options

Whether you are facing custody or guardianship matters, seeking legal advice is vital. The dedicated team of The Smith Law Offices, P.C. has served Michigan families since 2010. To protect the best interests of you and your family, contact our office for guidance from an experienced Ann Arbor family law attorney today.

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