What Is a Conservatorship?

Conservatorships Explained

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A conservatorship is a court-authorized arrangement wherein one party is responsible for the welfare of an individual who is incapable of managing their own affairs. The conservator will typically have the authority to manage the conservatee’s finances and health.

Learn more about how conservatorships work and the different types.

Definition and Examples of a Conservatorship

A conservatorship is a court case in which a judge appoints an individual or party (the conservator) to oversee the welfare of an individual who cannot manage their own affairs (the conservatee). Examples of conservatees include elderly people or people with temporary or permanent mental or physical disabilities.

  • Alternate definition: A conservatorship occurs in a business setting when one party is given authority to oversee a declining company and bring it back to financial health.

Consider this example: Samantha is suffering from dementia and is unable to handle her health and finances. A court judge appoints Jonathan, Samantha’s son, as conservator to his mother. Jonathan has the legal authority to manage his mother’s finances, schedule her medical appointments, and sign legal documents on her behalf.

A conservatorship typically handles another’s financial affairs, whereas a guardianship oversees the ward’s health and safety. However, there are some states where a conservator may perform a mixture of both roles.

How Does a Conservatorship Work?

Minors or incapacitated persons who are deemed incapable of managing their affairs are eligible to be assigned a conservator. An incapacitated person can include an individual who struggles with mental illness or disability, physical illness, chronic intoxication, or drug abuse, as well as someone who is under confinement.

A successful conservatorship requires the conservator to be trustworthy and responsible. Since they will have significant control over an individual’s assets, they must be dependable and act in the conservatee’s best interests. Depending on the court arrangement, a conservator may be responsible for:

  • Managing the conservatee’s finances (e.g., budgeting, paying bills, investing)
  • Controlling the conservatee’s assets
  • Maintaining the conservatee’s life, health, and liability insurance
  • Hiring services that fulfill the conservatee’s daily and medical needs
  • Signing documents on the conservatee’s behalf

A conservator is not always a spouse, child, sibling, or other relative. Conservators can also be close friends. In some cases, a professional fiduciary or a public conservator issued through a county agency can act as a conservator.

When a conservatee enters a conservatorship arrangement, they do not surrender all of their rights. Depending on the circumstances, a conservatee may still manage their finances, make or change their will, marry, and make their own medical decisions.

If a conservatee is unhappy with their conservator’s performance, they have the authority to change conservators or end the conservatorship entirely. In some cases, the court will periodically send a court investigator to ensure the conservatorship is going smoothly and answer any questions.

Types of Conservatorships

The amount of authority that a conservator holds—and for how long—will depend on the conservatorship. Common conservatorship arrangements include:

General Conservatorship

This type is for those who are unable to manage their health, finances, or care. Common conservatees include elderly people or those who suffer debilitating injuries.

Limited Conservatorship

These conservatorships are typically for adults with developmental disabilities who need assistance—but not at the level of those who suffer from more severe conditions. For example, those with cerebral palsy or epilepsy may have limited conservatorships.

Temporary Conservatorship

This type is often used when the conservatee needs immediate assistance. For example, a judge may appoint a temporary conservator while they review a formal petition for a longer-term general or limited conservator.

States have their own programs and laws surrounding conservatorship. California, for example, offers the Lanterman-Petris-Short conservatorship, which provides assistance to individuals suffering from a mental disorder or chronic alcoholism and will not submit to treatment voluntarily.

Criticism of Conservatorships

A conservator is legally required to act in the best interests of the conservatee—though the conservatee may not always feel this is the case. There are some scenarios in which the conservatee is opposed to their conservatorship arrangement but remains stuck in their circumstances.

The controversy surrounding Britney Spears and her conservatorship, for example, captured national attention in 2021. Due to her conservatorship, the celebrity alleged that she was forced to have a birth control procedure against her wishes. Spears attempted to hire a lawyer to end the conservatorship, but the request was dismissed because the court ruled her incapable of hiring a lawyer.

Unfortunately, not all conservators act in a moral obligation to maintain the conservatee’s best interests. Thus, it is critical that a conservatee’s rights to counsel and due process are fully preserved.

Requirements for Conservatorship

The process for qualifying for a conservatorship can vary by state. In California, for example, you must formally file a request with a judge. If the court agrees, an order is signed appointing an individual as conservator. This process includes signing an oath, affirming that the conservator will abide by the law. After the appointment, the conservator must obtain a Letter of Conservatorship—this document proves that the conservator has the power to act on behalf of the conservatee. Keep in mind that certain fees, like filing and legal expenses, may apply.

Showing proof of conservatorship may be required for certain tasks. For example, you would need this court-approved document when changing the conservatee’s address at the post office, accessing their safe deposit box, or signing leases and contracts on their behalf.

In some cases, it may be necessary for the conservator to obtain a conservator or guardianship bond. This is a legal agreement that protects the interests of a minor or legally incapacitated person. 

For example, if the conservator is not properly managing the conservatee’s finances, a claim may be filed against the bond to recoup any losses the conservatee suffered.

Key Takeaways

  • A conservatorship is a court arrangement in which an individual (the conservator) is appointed to oversee the well-being of an individual who cannot care for themselves (the conservatee).
  • Examples of conservatees include elderly people or individuals with temporary or permanent mental or physical disabilities. Conservators can include family members, close friends, and professional fiduciaries.
  • Conservator responsibilities may include meeting the conservatee’s daily needs, handling their finances and assets, and managing their medical appointments.
  • Although a conservator assumes many responsibilities, the conservatee still holds certain rights, such as the right to counsel, to change conservators, and to make their own financial and medical decisions.

Article Sources

  1. Judicial Council of California. “Handbook for Conservators,” Pages 1-5.

  2. Disability Rights California. "Understanding the Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Act."

  3. Congressman Jason Smith. “Smith Leads Effort To Protect Women in Conservatorships From Forced Contraception.”

  4. Ted Cruz, U. S. Senator for Texas. "Sen. Cruz: If Conservatorships Can Deprive Someone Like Brintey Spears of Her Liberties, 'Then What Chance Does the Average American Have?'"

  5. Judicial Council of California. “Handbook for Conservators,” Pages 1-7.

  6. Judicial Council of California. “Handbook for Conservators,” Pages 1-8.