What Is a Conservatorship? Pros, Cons & Alternatives

Conservatorship means someone manages the financial or personal affairs of a significantly incapacitated person.
Dalia Ramirez
By Dalia Ramirez 
Edited by Tina Orem

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Nerdy takeaways
  • Conservatorship removes significant rights and independence from a person and can be difficult to overturn.

  • The court must oversee all the conservator's major decisions for the conservatee.

  • If someone is incapacitated or resists medication, a nursing home or other treatment, conservatorship may help.

Nerdy takeaways
  • Conservatorship removes significant rights and independence from a person and can be difficult to overturn.

  • The court must oversee all the conservator's major decisions for the conservatee.

  • If someone is incapacitated or resists medication, a nursing home or other treatment, conservatorship may help.

Conservatorship is a court-appointed legal status where someone manages the personal or financial affairs of an incapacitated person, an older adult with physical or mental limitations, or a minor

Cornell Law School. conservatorship. Accessed Mar 20, 2024.
. Conservatorship of children is typically called guardianship.

Conservatorship vs. guardianship

The main difference between conservatorship and guardianship is age. Guardianship typically applies to minor children; conservatorship generally applies to adults (though definitions vary among states). Also, conservatorship usually concerns finances, while guardianship usually concerns medical and personal care

Cornell Law School. Guardianship. Accessed Mar 20, 2024.

Definitions of conservatorship vary among U.S. states and jurisdictions. In some states, guardianship is only for minor children and conservatorship is for adults.

“Conservator of the estate” typically refers to someone who manages an incapacitated person’s financial affairs, while “conservator of the person” refers to someone who manages personal and medical decisions. Conservatorship of a person is often called guardianship.

Conservatorship vs. adoption

The main difference between conservatorship and adoption is that adoption generally severs legal ties with the biological family or former guardians and makes someone a permanent member of the applicant's family, with inheritance rights

Cornell Law School. adoption. Accessed Mar 20, 2024.

A conservatorship typically only applies to adults, and a conservatee or their family can petition the court to change or remove a conservatorship.

How conservatorship works

  • A conservator's powers might apply to all of a person’s affairs or only to their financial decisions.

  • A judge can appoint a conservator to manage someone’s finances and a guardian to manage their medical and other care or appoint the same person to perform both duties. 

  • Conservators have responsibilities to the conservatee, typically to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter and ensure the conservatee’s well-being.

Financial conservatorship

Some states allow conservators for financial matters alone. This is often called “conservator of the estate” or “guardian of the estate.” The conservator may manage recurring tasks such as paying bills but typically must get court permission to supervise any major legal and financial decisions, such as purchasing property or investments.

  • The conservator usually must provide the court with spending records on a regular basis. 

  • This type of conservatorship might happen if a minor inherits a large amount of money.

Personal conservatorship

A court order can establish a conservatorship for an adult who can’t care for their personal or medical needs independently, sometimes called “conservator of the person” or guardianship in some states.

  • Typically, the court must verify any diagnosis before establishing a conservatorship.

  • If someone is incapacitated or resistant to assistance such as medication, a nursing home or other facility, this type of conservatorship can legally get them the help they need.

  • The conservator must file regular reports with the court documenting major decisions they made on behalf of the conservatee

    Family Caregiver Alliance. Conservatorship and Guardianship. Accessed Mar 20, 2024.

Powers of this kind of conservator may include, but are not limited to:

  • Housing, including institutionalization.

  • Medical care.

  • Food.

  • Clothing.

  • Transportation.

  • Education.

General vs. limited conservatorship

Conservatorships can be general (where the conservatee has very little decision-making power) or limited (which only permits the conservator to manage specific affairs). Personal and financial conservatorships can be limited or general.

General conservatorships are typically for elderly people and seriously impaired adults, while limited conservatorships usually work better for adults with developmental disabilities who do not need a general conservatorship’s higher degree of oversight.

In California, for example, a limited conservator may request up to seven powers on behalf of a conservatee

Courts.CA.Gov. Self Help Manual. Accessed Mar 20, 2024.

  1. Fix a residence or dwelling (for example, if the conditions are unsafe).

  2. Access confidential records.

  3. Consent or denial of a marriage.

  4. Form contracts.

  5. Give or withhold medical consent.

  6. Manage access to the conservatee’s contacts and relationships.

  7. Make educational decisions.

How to get conservatorship

These are the general steps to establish a conservatorship:

  1. An interested party asks a judge (“petitions the court”) to appoint a conservator to oversee a person’s affairs. The petitioner must prove that the conservatee cannot make their own financial or personal decisions.

  2. The court appoints an investigator to examine the situation and report to the court with an opinion on whether a conservatorship is warranted.

  3. The court holds a hearing where everyone comes together to review the findings and other evidence. In most states, conservatorship and guardianship proceedings are on the public record.

  4. If the judge determines that a conservatorship is warranted, the judge appoints the conservator and decides what the conservator can and cannot do on behalf of the conservatee.

  5. The investigator regularly visits the conservatee to evaluate whether the conservatorship is still appropriate.

🤓Nerdy Tip

It can take months to set up a permanent conservatorship, and costs include attorney fees, court fees and investigator fees. The annual review process can be costly and time-consuming, as well. The conservatee’s estate typically pays professional conservators (non-family members)

Alternatives to conservatorship

Conservatorship is an extreme measure that can remove significant rights from a person. Several alternatives might help protect you or someone you love during a vulnerable time without as many restrictions.

Financial alternatives to conservatorship

  • A durable financial power of attorney (POA) allows someone else to handle your finances, ranging from daily expenses to investments, legal claims and estate planning. Unlike a standard power of attorney, a durable POA stays effective if you become incapacitated.

  • A special needs trust is an estate planning tool designed to leave funds for a beneficiary with a disability, protect them against financial abuse and preserve their eligibility for government benefits.

  • A revocable living trust allows you to appoint a trustee to manage your financial affairs if you become incapacitated, but you must be competent when establishing the trust.

Medical alternatives to conservatorship

  • A durable medical power of attorney (POA), also called a health care proxy, allows someone else to advocate for your health care needs and make decisions about your medical treatments. Unlike a conservatorship, this doesn’t require a legal designation; typically, you fill out a form with your medical provider. 

If you’re looking into conservatorship as part of your estate planning, consult an estate planning attorney to help you navigate your state’s rules.

Frequently asked questions

Conservatorship is a fiduciary relationship, which means the conservator is legally obligated to act in the best interests of the conservatee. The IRS requires anyone in a fiduciary position, which includes guardians, trustees and conservators, to inform the IRS of the relationship in writing. You can use IRS Form 56 for this purpose.

Assets managed in conservatorship are still the property of the conservatee. The conservator may bear the responsibility for filing the conservatee’s tax returns.

The conservatee or their relatives can request a conservatorship removal if they feel that the conservatorship is unnecessary or that the conservator is not performing their duties. A conservatorship ends automatically if the conservatee dies or has no remaining assets.

However, as seen in the high-profile case of singer Britney Spears, whose conservatorship reportedly lasted from 2008 to 2021 despite her attempts to remove it, the legal arrangement can be difficult and time-consuming to overturn.

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