Tucked away in several state statutes is a phrase that guides Idaho child-custody law: "... in the best interests of the child."

When parents are no longer able to provide for the safety and well-being of their child, for whatever reason, the court will award guardianship to someone who can. Often it's a family member — usually a grandparent — who steps up to the plate.

But such cases differ greatly, and guardianship is only one of the legal actions that may apply.

Various terms used in child-custody law:

Parental power of attorney: Authorizes one to make decisions regarding another person's minor child. For example, a single mother may give parental power of attorney to her brother while she is out of town for work, so the brother can authorize medical care if the child becomes ill while her mother is away. A parental power of attorney may be revoked by the parent at any time and is limited in scope and duration.

De facto custodian: One who has provided care and support for a minor child without the benefit of the court. For example, grandparents who take in an adult son and his minor children are de facto custodians. De facto custodians have no more rights than any other third party, but having had de facto custodianship may give a person advantages in child-custody cases.

Guardian: One who has been awarded parental rights to a minor child in a court of law. For example, a grandfather may petition the court for custody of his daughter's child because of instability or abuse in his daughter's home. If ordered by the court, the grandfather will have full parental rights of the grandchild until the child turns 18. Guardianship does not prevent the parent from having a relationship with the child.   

Conservator: One who controls the finances of a minor child until he turns 18. For example, a minor may be entitled to survivor benefits if a parent dies, but isn't old enough to spend or invest the money. A conservatorship is subject to the court's review.

Guardian ad litem: A volunteer who is appointed by the court to speak for a child and make recommendations to the court for the child's safety and well-being.

Court-appointed special advocate: A guardian ad litem affiliated with the National CASA Association, which trains and supervises the volunteers to advocate for children. It is not required for a guardian ad litem to be affiliated with CASA.

—Mychel Matthews

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