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What Does a Ward of the State Mean?

As the name rightly suggests, the state is the guardian of a person who is declared by a court as a ward of the state.
OpinionFront Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Marilyn Monroe was declared a ward of the state at the age of 11.
In the legal context, the term 'ward' is used to denote a person who is placed under the protection of a legal guardian, by a court of law. A ward can be a minor child, an incapacitated senior, or a disabled adult. If the court finds the person legally incompetent, it appoints another person to take care of the former. It is the guardian's responsibility to protect the ward. In some cases, the court may take the responsibility of protecting a person who is found incompetent to manage his affairs. The court appoints a government agency to take care of that person, who is called ward of the state.

Ward of the court is another term that is used interchangeably with 'ward of the state', as it is the court which took the responsibility of the child or incapacitated person. Even after appointing a governmental agency to take care of the ward, the court retains the authority to take decisions on his behalf.
Wards of the State
Children who are in the custody of governmental agencies (through court orders) are often referred to as wards of the state. In such cases, the government has the legal authority to act in place of their parents and take decisions on behalf of the children. The legal term 'loco parentis' is often used in this context. This Latin term means 'in place of a parent,' and it denotes the parental status of the guardian and the responsibilities, duties, and rights with regard to that status. In this case, the state is in loco parentis with the child. Even those confined to correctional institutions by juvenile courts and those in foster homes are sometimes called wards of the state.

Earlier, only elderly people were made wards of the state, but nowadays, there is no such age limit. Apart from kids and elderly, people of any age can be made wards of the state, if they are deemed legally incompetent to conduct their affairs. A permanently disabled person can be made a ward of state, if he has no means to support himself, or if he is found to be abused or neglected by his family.
How Does a Child Become a Ward of the State?
A minor becomes a ward of the state when the state decides that there is no one to take care of the child, as the parents (or adoptive parents) are no more and the child has no relatives. A child can be made a ward of the state, even if the parents are alive. Usually, this happens when the parents become incompetent to take care of the child due to reasons like mental illness, chronic substance abuse, or physical disability. In some cases, the court may decide to make a child ward of the state, if he is likely to be subjected to neglect or abuse, if he stays with his parents. Children who are in trouble with law are often made wards of the state.

When a court takes a child in its custody, the child becomes a ward of the state. If the court reserves some authority over the child, who continues to be in the legal custody of his parents, he cannot be considered a ward of the state. In some cases, a ward of the state may be allowed to live with his parents, but the latter do not have the authority to take decisions on behalf of the child. While some kids may remain wards of the state till they reach 18 years of age, some others become wards only for a short duration.
How to Become a Ward of the State
Some people, especially kids, may become wards of the state, during the course of a litigation. In some cases, Child Protection Services or hospital authorities may get involved and report abuse or neglect of kids and adults, who are made wards of the state. The parents or relatives of a minor child may file a petition for making the child a ward of the state. In case of adults, the person himself or his relatives or well-wishers can file such a petition.

If you want to become a ward of the state, file a petition before the county court. Make sure you fill the relevant form, and provide details like the name and address of the person, and reasons for seeking such guardianship. File the petition along with the fee required. Attend the hearing and produce all the documents like medical reports. If the judge is convinced that the person is not able to manage his affairs on his own, he will make the person a ward of the state.
In short, the state has the responsibility to take care of wards of the state. In some cases, the state may provide financial assistance to the ward, if necessary. If a ward of the state has money as well as property, the state has the responsibility to manage the property and use his money for requirements like medical care. In case of kids, the state takes decisions regarding education and other such matters. The state may also allow the child to be adopted. Once adopted, the child ceases to be a ward of the state. Usually, wards of the state are not entitled to take important decisions on their own, without the approval of the court. Keep in mind that laws regarding wards of the state may vary from one state to another. So, it is better to consult an attorney to know more about this legal provision.