What Is a Conservatorship?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on July 15, 2023
3 min read

When a child turns 18, they’ll have the right to make more decisions about their life. Once they’re considered an adult, they’re in control of things like their medical care and choices like getting married, having a family, or making large purchases. But if they have a developmental disability, they may not be able to make these important decisions.

Other people may not be able to make certain decisions due to an illness, injury, or disability that happened later in life.

A conservatorship is a legal way to limit or control someone’s ability to make certain choices. A probate court can name a person to manage those decisions, called a conservator, for someone who’s unable to do it for themselves.

Though laws can vary from state to state, in general, a conservatorship is like a guardianship. The difference is that while a guardian takes care of an adult’s personal needs, a conservator takes care of their property and financial needs. Sometimes, a person may need both.

A judge will choose a conservator after a person, legally known as the “petitioner,” files at probate court. The person the petitioner is seeking a conservatorship for is known as the “respondent.”

The court will review the situation and determine whether a conservatorship is necessary. If the judge grants a conservatorship, the respondent will be known as the “protected individual.” The judge will choose a suitable conservator who’s willing to watch over the adult in question.

A conservatorship might be needed if someone is unable to make important decisions due to:

  • A lifelong or newly developed mental or physical disability
  • A coma
  • Alzheimer’s disease or dementia
  • A stroke
  • A brain injury

The court’s first choice for a conservator will be a close family member, such as a spouse, partner, parent, or adult child of the protected person. If none of these people can serve, the court will look for other friends or relatives.

If these people don’t work out, the court will select a specially trained attorney who works with these situations regularly.

Becoming a conservator is a large responsibility and can be time consuming. You must ensure the lifelong protection of another person. You’ll need to give reports about the protected individual to the judge on a regular basis.

Once you’re appointed as a conservator, the request will stand until:

  • The court decides the adult no longer needs a conservator. (The protected individual can petition the court to do so.)
  • The protected individual dies.
  • The conservator dies or resigns.
  • The court decides it’s in the best interest of the protected individual to remove the conservator.

The person who’s been filed under a conservatorship must get a copy of the paperwork, so they understand the situation. Even if they’re unable to read or comprehend it (for example if they’re in a coma) the paperwork must be in their possession. A neutral adult has to give the protected person the paperwork. The conservator can’t give it to them.

Under a conservatorship, the conservator is responsible for the collection, preservation, and investment of the protected individual’s property. They must use this property to care for, support, and benefit that person and their dependents.

The protected individual isn’t in charge of their finances anymore. That means they don’t have the same financial freedom as other people. A conservatorship doesn’t control their full freedom, though. They’ll still be able to go about their daily life. But if they need to make any decisions involving health care, property, insurance, or any financial matter, they must go through the conservator.