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What Is a Conservatorship?

Conservatorships allow a court-appointed individual to manage another person’s affairs. Learn how they work in this article.

Imagine a situation where someone you love becomes unable to take care of and make decisions related to critical aspects of their life, such as their finances and health. In these cases, it often makes sense for a competent person to step in and take over decision-making to ensure their well-being is upheld. While this can take many forms depending on the circumstance, one of the most common arrangements is a conservatorship.

In this article, we’ll offer a detailed overview of how conservatorships work, including an outline of the different forms they can take, as well as their distinction from the similar guardianship role. You’ll also learn about some of the alternative options available.

Key Takeaways

  • Conservators step in when an individual is unable to independently manage their life.
  • Conservators must act with a fiduciary duty under penalty of law.
  • For a court to appoint a conservator, there must be clear and obvious evidence that the person is unable to manage their life, such as with a disability, medical condition, or addiction.
  • A conservatorship is typically seen as a last resort after other options, such as power of attorney or a special needs trust, have been expended.

How Conservatorships Work

A conservatorship is a legal arrangement where a court appoints an individual, known as a conservator, to handle the affairs of another person, a conservatee. It typically occurs when a court deems that someone is unable to manage their life independently, often due to being incapacitated, lacking mental competency, or being too young to make certain decisions.

Below are some common areas a conservator may oversee:

  • Housing
  • Education
  • Transportation
  • Finances (i.e., managing bills, taxes, bank accounts, etc.)
  • Medical care

Conservators may exercise full control over each of the above areas, or they may only be able to do it in a more limited capacity. For example, they may only have control over a conservatee’s finances or, in other cases, only control their medical care. On the other hand, in situations where a person can’t make any decisions on their own, a conservator would assume complete direction over every aspect.

Because they hold so much power, someone appointed as a conservator must act with a fiduciary duty. Under penalty of law, they must ensure that their actions positively impact the conservatee, reflecting their best interest. Conservator appointees are responsible for reporting their actions to the court and must disclose information regarding spending.

What Triggers a Conservatorship?

As we’ll note further in the article, many other types of arrangements and estate planning vehicles exist that can give another person power to act on another’s behalf. Conservatorships, however, often become a last resort when none of these other options, such as special needs trusts or power of attorney (POA) documents, exist.

Ultimately, conservatorships happen when a person can’t make decisions on their own behalf. For a conservator to be appointed, a court must have clear evidence that someone can’t manage their life on their own. Most often, this occurs when someone experiences significant mental disability. Some common examples include:

  • Dementia or Alzheimer’s
  • Physical disabilities
  • Medical incapacitation
  • Cognitive decline due to age
  • Addiction
  • Being too young to make important life decisions

Commonly, a family member, such as a parent or spouse who’s familiar with the conservatee’s lifestyle and needs, will step into the conservator role. It’s also not uncommon for courts to appoint multiple people, especially if a protected person’s needs are too complex for one person to handle.

Types of Conservatorships

Types of conservatorships can vary. There are two primary categories of the concept, personal and corporate. The former refers to the management of a person’s affairs, while the latter refers to the management of companies and organizations.

The more typical in estate planning is the personal conservatorship. Within it, however, there are several sub-types, each with varying degrees and scopes of control over a conservatee’s life. Here’s a list of four primary ones, with descriptions of them:


This type of conservatorship grants complete control to a conservator over another person’s affairs, including both medical and financial areas. As noted, this commonly takes effect when a person isn’t capable of handling financial or medical decisions. It would require a person to be significantly affected by a disability or debilitating injury for this to become an option.


Under a limited arrangement, a conservator only controls a specifically designated area of a person’s life. An appointee may, for instance, solely have authority over a conservatee’s health-related matters, meaning they’ll oversee meetings with doctors and make medical decisions related to treatment. Because the conservator only controls defined areas, limited conservatorships allow a conservatee to maintain more control. Therefore, this type is usually for people with mental or developmental disabilities who are still capable of managing many areas of their lives.


A personal conservatorship is a limited type that gives an appointed person specific control over someone’s health, housing, and recreation. This gives substantial power for a conservator to decide a conservatee’s lifestyle and the treatments they receive. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA), people in this role must file annual reports on their actions and decisions. In some cases, often when the protected person is a minor, this is known as a guardianship.


A conservatorship of the estate enables a conservator to control someone’s finances and legal matters. Actions someone in this role would perform on a conservatee’s behalf might often include filing taxes, paying bills, and managing income. Per the FCA, this arrangement requires a conservator to seek approval for large expenditures, as well as report on all their actions and spending yearly.

Alternatives to Conservatorships

Conservatorships can be useful in protecting a person’s well-being when they’ve become unable to take care of themselves or their finances, specifically, in the absence of estate planning documents. However, they can have some glaring drawbacks, especially because they involve taking away someone’s ability to live their life as they see fit.

Below are some alternatives in estate planning:

Power of Attorney (POA)

A POA document allows you to give another individual or set of people decision-making ability over specifically defined areas of your life upon your incapacitation. Like a conservator, those with POA, known as agents, can have control over a wide number of affairs, including medical treatment, finances, and legal events.

Unlike a conservatorship, however, you get to decide how much control to give agents, as well as how long their POA will last. You also have a say in who you designate as an agent, whereas, with a conservatorship, you must hope the court appoints a capable person.

Special Needs Trust

While different from a conservatorship in that it doesn’t allow you to directly control a person’s life, a special needs trust allows you to give money to a disabled beneficiary safely at your discretion. The primary advantage of this type of trust is that it doesn’t cause them to lose their government benefits, meaning that they’ll still get the care and support they need from both public outlets and you.

Advance Healthcare Directives

Advance healthcare directives, such as those for mental health, are an effective alternative to a conservatorship. In short, these let you stipulate the medical care you wish to receive. It can also allow you to list a trusted person who can speak on your behalf.

Frequently Asked Questions

How are conservators held accountable?

Conservators are held accountable by the court that appointed them to the role. To maintain transparency about the actions they’re taking on a protected individual’s behalf, they must often file reports at least once a year that detail information such as their spending and decisions they’ve made. This might include listing a balance sheet, providing receipts, and more.

How long do conservatorships last?

Conservatorships may last for a varying amount of time. Sometimes, if a person is permanently incapable of handling their affairs, it may last for the rest of the conservatee’s life. However, in other cases, a court may conclude that the conservatee can live on their own without a guardian or oversight from another individual, ending the arrangement.

Does a conservatee retain any rights?

Conservatees often do retain some rights; however, the extent can depend on the state and type of conservatorship they’re in. For example, in a limited arrangement where a conservator manages a person’s finances, a conservatee may still maintain control over how they choose to live their life, as well as retain agency over their medical care.

What is the difference between a conservatorship and guardianship?

The difference between a conservatorship and a guardianship can vary depending on the state and age of a conservatee. Often, as mentioned, a guardianship may be the term used for a limited “conservatorship of the person” where the protected person is a child, while a conservatorship would be the label for an adult. For the most clarity, we recommend consulting your state’s laws or court websites for more information on the terminology it uses.