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What Is a Ward of the State?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Ward of the state refers to a person who is under the legal protection of some arm of the government. It could occasionally mean that a specific court protects the ward, and the term "ward of the court" is sometimes used in the same way. Though it’s common to think of unadopted, parentless or abandoned children or foster children as wards of the state, other people may need protection too. These could include those with mental incapacity or people who are imprisoned, since the latter group is technically under the care of the state and has few rights.

Being someone’s ward means being under someone’s care. The ward of the state is essentially under the state’s care through one or more of its agencies. Such wards might receive financial support from the state, should it be necessary. It’s possible for someone to become a ward because of mental incapacity, even if he or she has money. A person with serious mental illness could come under the state’s care in this way and the government would be able to make decisions about distribution of that person’s money to pursue care and to handle expenses.

In other instances, the ward of the state, like the foster child, has no financial resources. Given this, the state may determine where the person lives. This could mean living in foster or group homes until that person becomes an adult. Through the designated agency, the government makes decisions about education of that child, and the child does not have choice in the matter. The state can also frequently make a permanent custody arrangement for the child via adoption. Once the adoption is official, the child is no longer a ward of the state.

A term that is often mentioned in this context is in loco parentis. This is from the Latin and is used in a legal sense to mean in place of parents. The state essentially stands in loco parentis when a child is in its care. With adoption or even foster parenting, the government may appoint others to act in the place of a parent, too.

There are many countries that designate those in need of guardianship as wards of the state, although the title may be different, depending on the region. The responsibilities of the state or country as guardian are also variable: some states provide significant care and others do very little. Laws in each region tend to define the responsibilities of that governing force, but even with the best intentions, a ward of the state may not receive as much individualized care as a person with a loving parent or family members.

What Does It Mean To Be a Ward of the State

The terms “ward of the state” and “ward of the court” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not necessarily the same thing. In some states, being referred to as a ward of the state means a person has been or currently is incarcerated. However, the use of the term generally refers to an individual who is placed under the guardianship of the state by a court order. The term ward specifically refers to a person that has been placed under the protection or care of a legal guardian, and the individual could be a child, disabled adult or incapacitated senior.

How Does a Child Become a Ward of the State?

A child may become a ward of the state when the court has a reasonable belief that the child is being neglected, abused or is in danger in their current living situation with a parent or guardian. The court removes the child from the situation and places them with a supervising guardian or family member until the situation is resolved or permanent guardianship is requested and granted by an approved family member.

How Does an Adult Become a Ward of the State?

There is no age limit on becoming a ward of the state, and adults who have been deemed incapable of making decisions on their own, incompetent, or incapable of caring for their health and safety may be made a ward of the state. Mental and physical impairments or disabilities are leading factors in having an adult declared incompetent or incapable of self-care, particularly when the care required is more than family members are able to provide.

In most cases, the court will listen to the arguments and appoint a guardian over the individual to make decisions for the ward. The ward’s best interest is the focus of the decision, particularly in regard to finances and medical care. A guardian will often pay the rent or mortgage for an individual, ensure the ward receives healthcare and received eligible benefits from the state.

Are There Any Ward of the State Benefits?

While becoming a ward of the state seems like a sad or ominous condition, being a ward can actually be beneficial to an individual. In fact, there are a few benefits that can come from being a ward of the state.

  • Personal interest in the health and well being of an individual who can’t care for himself or herself
  • Financial protection and oversight to keep a ward from being taken advantage of
  • Possible financial aid or grants for education expenses for children
  • Court-approved expenses or compensation for guardianship which prevents at-risk individuals from being scammed out

Who Takes Care of a Ward of the State?

Though a court of law determines when an individual becomes a ward of the state, the court itself does not take the child or individual into care. When a case of incompetence is brought before the court or if a child who needs to be removed from a home is brought before the court, the judge will determine what kind of care is needed for the individual. In the case of abuse, neglect or legal trouble, the child is removed from the home. If it is an elderly adult living in a nursing home, there may be no need to remove the person and the request is to address the financial and healthcare decision-making that needs to be done.

What Is the Difference Between a Guardian and a Conservator?

In both cases, these individuals are court-ordered. These roles are legally able to make decisions on behalf of an individual. For some people, there may only be a need for help with managing the estate or finances, while others could need help making decisions about medical care and daily activities. A guardian has a much broader, the legal scope of decision-making while a conservator is usually limited to paying bills or other financial matters.

How Can You Be Released From Being a Ward of the State?

There are a few instances where a person can have their ward status terminated. The ward status of a person will end if the court is able to find the person in question is no longer incapacitated, which involves a lengthy process of physical and mental testing and a formal hearing before a judge. The status can also be terminated when the individual passes away. For children, the status may end at the age of 18 or when the situation at home is resolved or when adoption occurs.

FAQ on Ward of the State

What does it mean to be a ward of the state?

Being a ward of the state means that an individual, often a child or incapacitated adult, is placed under the legal protection of the state due to an inability to care for themselves. This typically occurs when parents are unable to provide proper care or when adults lack the capacity to make decisions for themselves. The state assumes responsibility for their well-being, including their living arrangements, healthcare, and education.

How does a child become a ward of the state?

A child becomes a ward of the state usually through court proceedings where it is determined that the parents are unable to care for the child. This can be due to abuse, neglect, abandonment, or if the parents are deceased or incapacitated. The state's child protective services agency then steps in to ensure the child's safety and well-being, often placing them in foster care or a group home.

What rights do parents have if their child becomes a ward of the state?

When a child becomes a ward of the state, parental rights are not automatically terminated. Parents may retain certain rights, such as the right to visitation, to be notified of court hearings, and to participate in decisions regarding their child's welfare. However, these rights can be limited or revoked by the court, especially if maintaining them would be detrimental to the child's best interests.

Can a ward of the state be adopted?

Yes, a ward of the state can be adopted. If the court terminates parental rights, the child becomes legally free for adoption. Prospective adoptive parents must go through a rigorous assessment process to ensure they can provide a safe and loving home. Adoption provides the child with a permanent family and the same legal rights and social status as a biological child.

What happens to wards of the state when they turn 18?

When wards of the state turn 18, they age out of the foster care system and are considered legal adults, responsible for their own care and decisions. Some states have extended foster care programs that provide support until the age of 21, offering assistance with housing, education, and employment to help with the transition to independence. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2021, at least 26 states and the District of Columbia have provisions for extended foster care beyond the age of 18.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon1006707 — On May 06, 2022

I have a daughter with Rett Syndrome, and she is a ward of the state in a group home.

My question is: what alternates do I have for care of my daughter? I would care for her myself but would need financial help. The CDPH, and Regional Center want to transfer her to another home. Can I say no? Any info, please.

By anon1006131 — On Feb 01, 2022

How do you have an adult declared ward of the state?

By anon999283 — On Nov 27, 2017

Can someone who is ward of the state go back home after feeling better?

By anon991902 — On Jul 27, 2015

I was a ward of the state for a while and I want to be emancipated.

The authorities check up on me through every phone I use and trace my whereabouts and even show up in libraries and pose as volunteer librarians. I told them that my plans are to finish high school and to get a real job. But no matter what my choices are they say I can be arrested or put intoa group home for my efforts and decisions where I want to go or if I want a job and an education. I am thiry years old and from Arkansas.

By anon923922 — On Dec 31, 2013

I had a friend who was a ward of the state. He mentioned he was one time, but I didn't really consider the implications of what he meant until now, seeing as how I was teenager at the time who didn't think much about these matters.

By anon215605 — On Sep 18, 2011

What does this mean? Can I be my own payee if I move out? I'm 28 and I have trouble with my money and sending it but I think I can do it on my own. Please tell me something that will help me become my own payee.

By drtroubles — On May 11, 2011

In the case of a child being a ward of the state, is foster care always pursued first, or is it more of a default for when a child is not adopted?

I imagine that it would be more beneficial financially for the government if children can be placed in a permanent home.

By popcorn — On May 08, 2011

In the case of adults that have mental health issues, is being a ward of the state only considered after it has been found that there are no living family members that will look after the person?

I am curious is to how exhaustive the search is for alternative accommodations for such people, as I know many institutions get large subsidies for their work.

By manykitties2 — On May 05, 2011

Being a ward of the state, notably as a foster child or asylum prisoner, seems to be a popular plot device in a lot of movies. I find that being a ward of the state is often stigmatized by the mainstream media and is laid out as being a terrible condition for the most unlucky in our society.

In reality, I believe that is an unfair portrayal of the system. While there have been cases of neglect under state care, there are also many wonderful programs that are in place to care for those who would otherwise be without any assistance at all.

I worry that all of the negative stereotyping surrounding wards of the state will affect how much funding is allocated for such a necessary service.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia...
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