Courts generally have the power to appoint a guardian for an individual in need of special protection. A guardian with responsibility for both the personal well-being and the financial interests of the ward is a general guardian. A person may also be appointed as a special guardian, having limited powers over the interests of the ward. A special guardian may, for example, be given the legal right to determine the disposition of the ward’s property without being given any authority over the ward’s person. A guardian appointed to represent the interests of a person with respect to a single action in litigation is a guardian ad litem.
Some jurisdictions allow a parent of a child to exercise the authority of a legal guardian without a formal court appointment. In such circumstances the parent acting in that capacity is called the natural guardian of that parent’s child.
Guardians ad litem are sometimes appointed in probate matters to represent the interests of unknown or unlocated heirs to an estate.
A guardian is a fiduciary and is held to a very high standard of care in exercising his or her powers. If the ward owns substantial property the guardian may be required to give a surety bond to protect the ward in the event that dishonesty or incompetence on his or her part causes financial loss to the ward.
Depending on the jurisdiction, a legal guardian may be called a conservator, custodian, or curator. Many jurisdictions and the Uniform Probate Code distinguish between a “guardian” or “guardian of the person” who is an individual with authority over and fiduciary responsibilities for the physical person of the ward, and a “conservator” or “guardian of the property” of a ward who has authority over and fiduciary responsibilities for significant property (often an inheritance or personal injury settlement) belonging to the ward. Some jurisdictions provide for public guardianship programs serving incapacitated adults or children.