A ward of the court is an individual who is unable to care for himself such that the court must assume responsibility for his well-being. In many instances, children whose parents or extended families are unable to care for them become wards of the court. An adult who suffers from some sort of cognitive impairment may also become the responsibility of the court if it is obvious that she is unable to make good decisions about her care and needs. The term is commonly used in the United States, though in the United Kingdom and Ireland the phrased is shortened to ward of court. In Canada, these people are referred to as Crown wards.
Children are often designated wards of the court when their parents either die or become unable to care for them. While the hoped-for resolution in such cases is that grandparents or other family members will step up and assume legal guardianship of the child, there are cases in which there are no family members available or willing to assume that responsibility. When a child has nobody to care for him, he will be made a ward of the court and usually enter the foster care system, although he may eventually be adopted or, in some cases, returned to the care of his parents. Decisions about his schooling, health, and lifestyle are up to the court and its agents. In the United States, a teenager or young adult who is or was a ward of the court is often treated as independent when it comes to receiving federal financial aid for higher education, which can make it easier for him to get student aid money so that he can further his own education.
An adult may become a ward of the court if it can be determined that she lacks the ability to manage her own life because of some type of mental incapacity. In many places, including the United States, it can be very difficult to give an adult this status out of concern for her human rights and liberties. If an adult is made a ward of the court, the court or a court-appointed guardian will take over the management of the adult ward's finances and decisions about medical care and treatment. If the adult ward regains her capacities, she may be able to petition the court to once again assume control over her own life.