Conservatorship vs. Guardianship: What's the Difference?

The needs of the ward will determine which role is appropriate

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When an individual is in need of care to the extent that they become a ward of the court, the court will appoint a guardian or conservator to help. A guardian assumes responsibility for the basic care and daily needs of a child or of an individual who has been determined to be mentally or physically incapacitated, while a conservator is appointed when a minor or incapacitated adult is in need of an adult to manage their property and assets.

The duties of guardians and conservators can overlap, and sometimes the same person is appointed to both roles, but their roles are very different. 

Key Takeaways

  • A guardianships's purpose is to manage a ward's personal care and daily living needs.
  • A conservatorships's purpose is typically to care for the financial affairs of the individual.
  • Guardianships and conservatorships are typically overseen by the courts.
  • Some states differentiate between a conservator of the person (daily care) and a conservator of the estate (financial affairs).

What's the Difference Between Conservatorship and Guardianship?

Conservatorship  Guardianship
Primary responsibilities Managing ward's financial affairs Managing ward's personal care and daily living needs
Additional duties May extend to more substantial holdings and assets May extend to securing medical care, education, and minor financial duties
Checks on authority Fiduciary duty, power of attorney, yearly accounting Fiduciary duty, restricted to threshold below $24,000 per year

Primary Responsibilities

A guardian is responsible for an elder or minor ward's personal care, which includes housing and medical care. Guardians make sure that their ward has a place to live, such as the guardian's home, with a caretaker, or in an assisted living or full-care facility.

Conservators are appointed to take care of the conservatee's daily needs and finances, working with the conservatee to make financial decisions (when possible).

In some states, such as California, there are two types of conservator: conservator of the person (takes care of daily non-financial needs) and conservator of estate (takes care of daily financial needs.)

In cases where wards have more substantial holdings, the conservator may have to petition the court to get the power to decide whether assets such as real estate and certain tangible personal property should be bought, held, or sold.

The conservator will maintain ongoing contact with the ward's financial institutions to ensure that everything is being managed appropriately. The order of conservatorship provided by the court gives the conservator the legal power to make financial decisions on the ward's behalf. 

Additional Duties

Guardians are also required to make sure minor wards are receiving the education they require in addition to the formerly listed duties, and for receiving any training that the ward might require. Minor financial responsibilities, such as paying bills and purchasing daily necessities, are also tasks for a guardian.

A guardian can often make medical decisions on behalf of the ward, although some states limit this power depending on the ward's status.

The conservator uses the ward's finances to pay the bills, including medical and personal bills. They also make sure income taxes are filed and paid as needed.

If a minor ward has liquid assets (able to be converted to cash quickly), a conservator can decide where the funds could be held and who would be responsible for overseeing their investment. The conservator might do this directly or enlist the help of a professional financial advisor or lawyer.

Checks on Authority

Generally, the guideline of income or benefits of $24,000 per year is used to establish whether a person needs a guardian or a conservator. Conservators are used when wards have more financial holdings.

A conservator is usually responsible for preparing an accounting of actions they've taken on the ward's behalf, filing it with the court each year. Some states require that a conservatorship must begin with a full accounting of all the ward's assets and debts at the time the conservatorship is established. 

The annual accounting typically includes how the ward's assets have been bought, sold, or invested, and what has been spent on behalf of the ward during the previous year.

The accounting should include a plan detailing the medical treatment and personal care received by the incapacitated ward in the previous year, as well as an outline of the plan for the ward's medical and personal care for the next year.

A court-appointed guardian or conservator must also typically file a final accounting of a minor's assets when the minor reaches adulthood.

A doctor's report might be required from time to time, detailing the ward's current mental and physical conditions, and can state whether a guardianship or conservatorship is still required.

Which Is Right for Your Situation?

A guardianship may be appropriate if:

  • The ward is a minor with no parents or relatives who can serve as daily caretakers
  • The ward is an adult who is not mentally or physically capable of taking care of themselves and their basic needs
  • The ward has special educational or medical needs that are not currently being provided

A conservatorship may be appropriate if:

  • The ward is an adult who has been deemed legally incompetent to make their own financial decisions, and does not have anyone serving as power of attorney
  • The ward is a minor who has inherited or been entrusted with a large sum of money that would benefit from professional management

When Court Approval Is Required

Guardians and conservators have many duties and responsibilities when given a ward to look after. Depending upon the laws of the state where the ward lives, some of these duties and responsibilities will require court approval, while others may not.

  • Florida law requires that a conservator must get court approval before selling any of the ward's real estate or personal property. 
  • Nebraska requires court approval before using the ward's debit card for withdrawing funds from an account.
  • In Massachusetts, a guardian can't admit the ward to a long-term care facility or administer certain drugs without a special court order.

If you have been granted the privilege of caring for someone as a guardian or conservator, make sure to familiarize yourself with your state's laws and requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How are conservatorships and guardianships different?

A conservator handles the conservatee's financial affairs. They can also manage the conservatee's daily non-financial needs. Typically, a guardian handles the ward's daily health and well-being affairs and has custody of the ward.

Who needs a conservatorship?

In general, conservatorships are for adults who need someone to take care of their financial needs because they are incapable of handling their own finances. In some cases, conservators are appointed when a younger person receives an unsually large sum of money.

Article Sources

  1. Superior Court of California, County of San Diego. "Conservatorship." Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.

  2. Judicial Council of California. "Handbook for Conservators," Pages 1-1 to 1-3. Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.

  3. Connecticut Probate Court. “Probate Court User Guide for Conservators,” Page 8. Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.

  4. Judicial Council of California. "Handbook for Conservators," Page 5-10. Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.

  5. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “Help for Court-Appointed Guardians of Property and Conservators,” Pages 10-12. Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.

  6. Colonial Bonds and Insurance. "The Duties of Conservators and Guardians." Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.

  7. Access Washington. “RCW 11.88.140, Termination of Guardianship or Limited Guardianship.” Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.

  8. Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court. “Guardianship Basics.” Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.

  9. State of Nebraska Judicial Branch. “Ch. 4 - Q11: Are There Other Important Rules That I Should Know As a Guardian or Conservator?" Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.

  10. Mass.gov. “Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code,” Pages 46-49. Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.

  11. California Courts: The Judicial Branch of California. "Guardianship." Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.

  12. Family Caregiver Alliance. "Conservatorship and Guardianship." Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.