The Difference Between Custody and Guardianship

The Maryland Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act defines several types of guardianship for both adults and minors. While guardianship and custody are similar, and even mistakenly used interchangeably when discussing child custody and visitation, there is a big difference between the two. In the realm of estate planning, the differences are subtle, yet profound.

Custodial Powers

There are two types of custody: physical and legal. A parent may have both, one, or neither, depending on the outcome of a court decision. Having physical custodial powers means that the parent has the right to control the child’s physical movements. For instance, a father with visitation rights has the power to physically control his child for a defined amount of time. For example, he is in charge of the child for a sleepover or a shared night at the movies. When the child returns home to the mother, who has legal custody, the father no longer has physical custody. The mother now has physical custody of the child. A parent with legal custody has decision-making power regarding the child’s:

  • Education;
  • Living situation;
  • Healthcare;
  • Religion; and
  • Day-to-day activities.

An easy way to remember who has what type of custody is as follows:

  • Parents with sole custody have both legal and physical custody;
  • Parents with joint or shared custody have both legal and physical custody; and
  • Parents with visitation rights have limited physical custody.


Being a guardian is not the same as being a custodian. A guardian is charged with making decisions in the best interest of a ward (a child or elder). Their power is limited to making day-to-day decisions on behalf of the child. An aunt or uncle may become a guardian if one or both of the child’s parents die. Guardians are typically close relatives or trusted family friends. A parent will almost never need to become a guardian of his or her child. One exception is if a child is left assets in a will. In this case, a parent may need to become a guardian (and use the assets in the best interest of the chlid) in order to manage the funds. In order to become a guardian of a minor in Maryland, you must take the Guardian of Minor Training Program under Maryland Courts and file a Petition for Guardianship with the Circuit Court.

Call Maryland Family Law Attorney Tara K. Frame

Child custody, visitation, parenting plans, and guardianship are complex and incredibly important issues. It is easy to become confused in the stress and trauma of a divorce or a death in the family. The last thing that you want to happen is for your child’s well-being to be neglected. Ensure that your child or elder is properly taken care of by working with a Pasadena family law attorney. We can help you gain full custody, shared custody, visitation rights, or guardianship depending your goals. Call the law offices of Frame & Frame today at 410-255-0373 to schedule an initial consultation.