Conservatorship: How It Works, Types, Alternatives

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

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This influences which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.

The investing information provided on this page is for educational purposes only. NerdWallet, Inc. does not offer advisory or brokerage services, nor does it recommend or advise investors to buy or sell particular stocks, securities or other investments.

What is conservatorship?

Conservatorship is the court appointment of a person (a "conservator") to manage the personal or financial affairs and decisions of another person — typically an adult — facing physical or mental limitations (a "conservatee"). A judge determines the legal status of a conservatorship. Conservatorship for children is often called guardianship.

Conservatorship overview

  • Conservatorships can be structured to apply to all of a person’s affairs or only to their financial decisions — this is called conservatorship of the estate.

  • Putting someone under conservatorship can be a costly and time-consuming legal process, and it’s a fairly extreme option compared with alternatives such as a power of attorney or a special needs trust

    Family Caregiver Alliance. Conservatorship and Guardianship. Accessed Jul 7, 2023.

  • Conservatorships may be necessary to place an adult in a nursing home or other assistive environment.

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; guardianship usually concerns medical and personal care Conservatorship and Guardianship. Accessed Jul 7, 2023.

Conservatorship vs. adoption

One big difference between conservatorship and adoption is permanence. 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.

On the other hand, a conservatee or their family can petition the court to change or remove a conservatorship

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

This issue came up again publicly on Aug. 14, when former NFL player Michael Oher, whose life story inspired the movie The Blind Side, filed a petition challenging his conservatorship under Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. Oher claims the couple had him sign conservatorship documents under false pretenses of adoption, and then profited from his name and likeness. (He alleges he saw no proceeds from the film.) The Tuohys have refuted the claims.

Trust & Will
Best for: Ease of use. Cost: One-time fee of $159 per individual or $259 for couples. $19 annual membership fee thereafter.

Nolo's Quicken WillMaker
Best for: Users who want an all-inclusive experience. Cost: $99 per year for Starter plan. $139 per year for Plus plan. $209 per year for All Access plan.

Best for: State-specific legal advice. Cost: $89 for Basic will plan. $99 for Comprehensive will plan. $249 for Estate Plan Bundle.

How to get conservatorship

These are the general steps to establish a conservatorship

Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA). Conservatorship and Guardianship. Accessed Jul 7, 2023.

  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 can’t make their own financial or personal decisions, or both.

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

  3. The court holds a hearing in which everyone comes together to review the findings and other evidence.

  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 continues to visit the conservatee from time to time to evaluate whether the conservatorship is still appropriate.

What are the powers of a conservator?

Depending on what a judge decides, a conservator's powers might apply to all of a person’s affairs or only to their financial decisions. In general, three types of conservatorships reflect the different types of powers a conservator can have.

1. Conservator of the estate

Also called a conservator for finance, a conservator of the estate only manages a person's assets. The court supervises major decisions such as the purchase of property or investments, and the conservator must provide a record of spending to the court every year. If a minor inherits a large amount of money, a court may appoint a parent or legal guardian as the conservator of their estate

Superior Court of CA, County of San Diego. Conservatorship. Accessed May 8, 2023.

2. Conservator of the person

A court order can establish a personal conservatorship for an adult who can’t take care of their personal or medical needs on their own. Typically the court must verify any diagnosis before establishing a conservatorship. Usually, the conservator must file reports with the court every year documenting major decisions they made on behalf of the conservatee

Superior Court of California, County of San Diego. Conservatorship. Accessed Jul 7, 2023.

3. General vs. limited conservatorship

Conservatorships can be general, where the conservatee has very little or limited decision-making power, which only permits the conservator to manage specific affairs.

  • General conservatorships are typically associated with elderly people and adults who have been seriously impaired.

  • Limited conservatorships are often associated with adults with developmental disabilities who do not need a general conservatorship’s higher degree of oversight.

Pros and cons of conservatorship

Advantages of conservatorships

  • Consistent oversight. Because the court must oversee all major decisions the conservator makes, conservatorships can provide structured protection of a conservatee. 

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

  • Singular. Having a designated conservator can simplify decisions and reduce conflict among family members.

Disadvantages of conservatorships

  • Restrictive. Conservatorship, depending on the type, removes significant rights and independence from a person and can be difficult to overturn.

  • Costly. 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)


  • Public. Conservatorship and guardianship proceedings are often public records in most states, which can affect the privacy of the conservatee and their loved ones

Alternatives to conservatorship

Conservatorship is an extreme measure that can remove significant rights from a person, so it’s not the best or only option for most people. Several alternatives might also help protect you or someone you love during a vulnerable time.

Financial alternatives to conservatorship

Medical alternatives to conservatorship

State differences in conservatorship

Definitions of conservatorship vary among U.S. states and jurisdictions. In some states, guardianship is only for minor children and conservatorship is for adults. In California, for example, both roles are called conservatorship and are separated by personal and estate

Judicial Branch of California, California Courts Self-Help Guide. Conservatorships. Accessed May 8, 2023.

If you’re looking into conservatorship as part of your estate planning, consult an estate planning attorney in your state 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.

Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.