How to know which type of conservatorship to choose

  • In this legal arrangement, a conservator is appointed to manage the personal and financial affairs that have become too much for your loved one.

  • There are three types of conservatorships: limited, temporary, and full.

  • A temporary conservatorship reflects a situation that is not permanent—and they usually lasts around 90 days.

  • In a limited conservatorship, the conservator's power is limited to making specific decisions.

  • When a person is unable to manage their financial affairs, a full (or plenary) conservatorship gives their conservator complete control over the estate. 

If your loved one is under the care of a guardian or conservator, or you are thinking about whether a conservatorship may be necessary, you may have some questions about how conservatorships work.

Many people have a negative association with the idea of conservatorship since it often gets a bad reputation in popular media as a way to exploit people. Unfortunately, this may be the case sometimes.

In most cases, however, a conservatorship is not an exploitative relationship. And it may be helpful for families with loved ones who need extra care—whether they are terminally ill or going through cognitive decline.

To understand a bit more about conservatorships, it is important to look at how they work, what they cost, and how they relate to and impact your loved one’s estate.

What is a conservatorship? 

In basic terms, a conservatorship is a legal arrangement by which a person is appointed to manage the personal and financial affairs of a minor or a person who is physically or mentally incapacitated.

The appointed person is called a conservator or a guardian. When the person being cared for is elderly, this relationship can also be called an elderly guardianship or elderly conservatorship. 

Why might someone need a conservator? 

There are many reasons why an older person may need a conservator to help care for himself or herself. A conservatorship can take many forms, and the relationship can change as a person may lose more of their mental and physical capacities.

Usually, a conservator is appointed to assist a person with specific tasks, and they are legally limited to helping with only the tasks that the court has approved.

Conservators are commonly authorized only to pay a person’s bills, make investments on their behalf, and handle other financial matters.

For example, conservators are commonly authorized only to pay a person’s bills, make investments on their behalf, and handle other financial matters.

However, different authorizations can be made depending on the person’s unique needs. 

Difference between a conservatorship and a guardianship

While both conservatorships and guardianships are court-ordered, they differ crucially in that, while a conservator is only granted limited, specific decision-making power, a guardian can make a wide range of decisions for the person in their care.

However, it is possible in some cases for a conservatorship to grant a larger amount of decision-making to an individual if the court finds the person in their care needs it.

Dementia and cognitive decline are the main reasons why families elect to have a conservator appointed to manage a loved one’s financial accounts, medications, etc.

The level of cognitive decline will dictate how much intervention is needed. Some elderly people need assistance only with a few aspects of their life, whereas others need assistance with everyday activities and/or personal care. 

It is ultimately up to the court to approve or decline a proposed guardianship or conservatorship. 

The 3 types of conservatorships

Your choices for conservatorships are: limited, temporary, and full (or plenary). In a limited conservatorship, the conservator only has certain, specific decision-making powers, depending on the abilities of the person in their care. 

A temporary conservatorship usually lasts around 90 days, is used when the need for care is temporary, or when a permanent conservatorship is pending. 

Finally, in a full (or plenary) conservatorship, the conservator has complete control over a person’s finances. This is generally a last resort but is used when a person is very clearly unable to manage any part of his or her estate. 

Who is eligible to be a conservator? 

Different courts may have slightly different rules regarding who is eligible to serve as someone’s conservator, but generally, the court will choose a family member who is willing and able to take on the job.

The court usually gives preference to the spouse or domestic partner, then an (adult) child, a parent, or a sibling. When no family members are available, the court may consider a close friend. If there are no available friends or family members, or if there is a conflict, the court may appoint a third-party professional to take on the responsibility of the conservator. 

Usually, families prefer to have someone in the family appointed as conservator, but it is also a huge responsibility, and sometimes there simply isn’t a family member who can take on the job. 

Do conservators get paid?

It depends. Depending on the type of conservatorship needed, you may be working around the clock to care for your loved one. Even in limited conservatorships, there is still a lot of work and responsibility.

Given the range of the type and amount of work conservators perform, compensation varies on a case-by-case basis.

The fee for the conservator comes out of your loved one’s estate, so if a family member is anticipating receiving an inheritance from their loved one, it may make sense to forego the conservator’s fee to avoid devaluing their assets. 

If a public or third-party conservator has been appointed, they will require compensation. Again, since it is such an individualized situation, there is no set rule for how much conservators must be paid. Any suggested payment must be “reasonable” in the eyes of the court, or the court will not approve it.

Aside from the conservator’s fee, there are other costs associated with a conservatorship. An attorney must be hired for the process, and the court may charge certain filing fees for paperwork. Since the conservatorship ends when your loved one dies, these costs will likely get worked out during the probate of your loved one’s estate

While it may sound overwhelming to have a conservator appointed to care for your loved one, know that it is something many families go through. Of course, it is a bit of a complicated arrangement and it’s good to think through what it entails and the costs it will incur to see if it is right for your family. What matters most is that you’re doing what’s best for your loved one—getting them the care they need so that they can be as comfortable as possible.