Adoption vs Guardianship

Adoption and guardianship are legal terms that are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings and implications. The main difference revolves around whether or not you need to terminate the biological parents’ rights to their children. Understanding the differences between the two is important, especially for caregivers considering legal custody. 


Adoption is a legal process that permanently gives parental rights to adoptive parents. It means taking responsibility for the child’s health, safety, and education. It is a lifelong commitment to a child in which the birth parent’s rights and responsibilities are terminated. The adoptive parent(s) are named on the birth certificate. The child gains all benefits and rights as if they were born to the parents. Adoption creates a true sense of security and belonging for a child.

Greenlight can help all families become a legal family through adoption. Greenlight offers kinship, second parent, stepparent, adult and Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) foster parent adoption services.


Guardianship is legal custody that allows the caregiver to make decisions for the child in their care. It differs from adoption because the biological parents’ rights are not terminated, and it is not a permanent legal status. Guardianship is a more flexible option for families who are not ready or able to take on the full legal and financial responsibilities of adoption or when terminating the birth parents’ rights is not an option.

Guardians are often kin of the child in their care, whether a grandparent, aunt/uncle, or sibling. Caretakers with other relationships to the child, called “fictive kin,” may also take on this role. This may include family friends, neighbors, teachers, and others. 

Greenlight offers guardianship, adult guardianship, minor guardianship, short-term guardianship, and standby guardianship. After becoming the legal guardian through Greenlight’s legal services, the caregiver will be enabled to:

  • Retain custody
  • Enroll the child in school if they are a minor
  • Consent to medical treatment for the child
  • Applying for public benefits the child may be eligible to receive
  • Making financial decisions if the guardianship is for a disabled adult
  • Regulate visits with the biological parent(s)


So why would someone choose guardianship over adoption? Greenlight believes that guardianship is ideal in situations where the caregiver hopes to eventually return the child to their parents or in situations where the parents are unwilling to have their rights terminated. Guardianship allows the caregiver to make legal, medical, educational, and financial decisions for the child or adult in their care. Guardianship can be a temporary arrangement, whereas adoption is permanent.

The University of Illinois Children and Family Research Center published a series of research briefs in 2023 examining the Role of Guardianship in Effective and Equitable Permanency. One survey of permanency professionals revealed greater endorsements for guardianship to:

  • Maintain the child’s relationship with their birth parents
  • Support permanent caregiver’s relationship with birth parents
  • Maintain contact with siblings
  • Enable birth parents’ visitation with their child
  • Aid kinship caregiver’s comfortability with the permanency decision
  • Enabling birth parents to accept a permanency plan

Permanency professionals endorsed a preference for adoption to:

  • Provide assurance of a permanent home to the child 
  • Increase the child’s sense of belonging in the family
  • Protect the child from abusive birth parents

Overall, research demonstrates that there is “no difference in stability between adoption and guardianship.” Permanency professionals agree that the best option between adoption or guardianship depends on every child’s unique circumstances; neither is better than the other when applied broadly. Regardless of which option you choose, the most important consideration is to prioritize the child’s best interests. Adoption and guardianship are both important legal processes that can provide stability, security, and love to children who need it most.

If you are considering adoption or guardianship, call Greenlight at 773-728-7800 or email for a free consultation.