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A legal guardian is someone who is appointed to take care of someone else, along with that person's property. Most commonly, this person takes care of a minor child and looks after his or her assets, but one may also be appointed to care for an adult who has been judged incapable, such as someone with a severe medical problem or disability. A similar concept is the conservator, someone who typically looks after assets, rather than the person and his or her property.
In most cases, a legal guardian must be appointed by a court, although there are some exceptions to this rule. Parents of a minor child are assumed to be the child's guardians, unless the court has taken parenting privileges away out of concern for the child's well-being. It is also possible for someone to designate a guardian in a will, as in the case of a single parent who specifies that an aunt will become the child's guardian in the event of the parent's death or incapacitation. People can also specify their own legal guardians, as in the case of someone about to undergo a risky surgery who might appoint a person to make decisions for him or her if things go wrong.
Legal guardians are in charge of ensuring that their wards are given physical care and comfort, including food, medical attention, housing, and similar needs. They are also usually charged with ensuring that their wards have access to education and other benefits. At the same time, they look after the assets of the ward to ensure that those assets are available for the ward's use when the guardianship ends, and that the assets are sufficient to take care of the ward as long as he or she requires the services of a guardian. Many are allowed full access to assets so that they can invest and dispose of them appropriately, although sometimes this privilege is abused.
The term of a guardian's responsibilities ends when a court formally dissolves the guardianship, or in the case of a minor child, when the child reaches adulthood. Wards can petition for emancipation or a new guardian, and in the case of someone who appears incapacitated, others may petition on behalf of the ward. If, for example, a nurse suspects that a patient is being abused by his or her guardian, the healthcare professional can file a formal complaint with the government to ask for the initiation of an investigation and an eventual court hearing that could strip the guardian of his or her position.
It's a good idea for people to think about the issues involved in selecting a legal guardian before the need for one arises. Parents are often encouraged to make out clear wills that include their wishes in regards to who will look after their child or children in the event of a catastrophe. People who suspect that they may become incapacitated through progressive degenerative diseases, accidents, or surgical procedures may also want to include a guardian clause in their wills, as should people who are acting as guardians for others. Before putting someone in a will as a legal guardian, individuals should talk to that person to make sure that he or she is prepared for the job and willing to accept it.