What’s the difference between guardianship, custody, and access?

Guardianship is the rights and duties between children and parents.  In particular, guardians make decisions about:

  • A child’s upbringing
  • Education
  • Religious and moral upbringing
  • Health
  • General Welfare

Married couples are automatically both guardians of their children, as are mothers.

Unmarried fathers are not automatically guardians of their children.

– Custody is the physical day-to-day care and control of the child.

A mother, who is not married to the father of her child, automatically has sole custody.

A father, who is not married to the mother of his child, may apply to court to be appointed a guardian of the child. If he is successful in his application to be appointed a guardian, he may apply for custody.

The Courts can award sole custody, joint custody and can make various orders in this regard.

Occasionally a child may not be in the custody of their parents, for example, where the child is being reared by grandparents, a relative of the child, foster parents or is in the care of a health board.

– Access can take various forms; it can be visitation rights or communication such as by way of telephone, e-mail, physical visits, or supervised visits.  Access can be agreed between the parties on consent or by the Court if agreement cannot be reached.

Grandparents and relatives can also apply for access.


QuestionI am a father, am I my child’s guardian? My name is on my child’s birth certificate as father?

As stated above a father, who is not married to the mother of his child, is not automatically the child’s guardian even if you are named on the birth certificate.

However, the mother may consent to the father being appointed a guardian and the law provides for a statutory procedure to allow this be done on consent.

Alternatively, the unmarried father may apply to court to be appointed a guardian with the mother and make an application to the District Court.

Other guardians may be appointed under a parent’s will or by court order.


QuestionI am a grandparent.  Can I get to see my grandchildren even though their parents are in dispute?

Man holding child's handGrandparents also have certain rights regarding their grandchildren.  If a grandparent is denied access, they can apply to the court for access to their grandchildren.

In certain circumstances Grandparents may be able to foster or adopt a grandchild.  If a grandparent is the main custodian and carer of a child they can make certain applications to the District Court including for maintenance.


QuestionWhen are children adults or no longer dependents at law?

Children under 18 years, or 23 years if in full time education, are considered dependants at law.

In certain circumstances children are always dependent on their parents, for example, because of a disability.