What is a Conservatorship? What You Need to Know About Adult Legal Guardianship

Ability Central clears some of the stigma and confusion surrounding conservatorships. We break down what they really are, how they are created, and the pros and cons of living under a conservatorship.

By Ability Central

28 March, 2024

Sitting outside in front of a pink house with a metal and wood window, a young Latina woman smiling with her eyes closed leans her head on the shoulder of her grandmother, an elderly Latina woman with curly gray hair.

Recent news about The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and TV personality Wendy Williams have once again brought conservatorships into the public eye. Conservatorships offer a way for someone to become the legal guardian of an adult. A conservator makes decisions about finances, medical care, and housing if their charge cannot. 

Some conservatorships have helped families for generations. However, the conservatorship struggles of celebrities like Britney Spears and Michael Oher have raised the question of whether these agreements are trustworthy legal options for families in need or opportunities for financial and emotional abuse. 

In this article, Ability Central seeks to clear some of the stigma and confusion surrounding conservatorships. We break down conservatorships: what they really are, how they are created, and the pros and cons of living under a conservatorship. We answer: 

  • What is a conservatorship?
  • Who needs a conservatorship?
  • How do you set up a conservatorship?
  • What are the pros of a conservatorship?
  • What are the cons of a conservatorship? 
  • How do courts prevent conservatorship abuse? 
  • Where can I get more information about conservatorships? 


What is a conservatorship?

A conservatorship is a legal structure that grants someone legal guardianship over an adult. In a conservatorship, the person who acts as legal guardian is called the conservator, while the person they care for is called the conservatee or ward. 

Conservatorship gives the conservator authority over the conservatee’s life, either in specific areas like finances or medical care (a limited conservatorship) or in all matters (a full conservatorship). 

Less restrictive court decrees, like power of attorney for disabled adults, allow someone to make certain decisions on someone’s behalf. Under a full conservatorship, however, a court appointed guardian essentially has the same rights and responsibilities toward their ward that a parent would have over their child. 

The point of a conservatorship is to meet the needs of the conservatee, not the interests of the conservator. As decision maker, the conservator makes choices designed to best meet the health and safety needs of the conservatee. 


Who needs a conservatorship?

Legal guardianship for adults with disabilities has long been a system used by families when someone is unable to care for or make decisions for themselves. 

In most cases, conservatorships are granted to care for people who are mentally incapacitated, although there are rare cases when physical incapacitation is severe enough to require care. Someone in need of a conservatorship might:

  • Be in a coma or otherwise physically or mentally incapacitated. 
  • Have a chronic illness that leads to incapacity, like Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or aphasia
  • Have a severe or permanent disability that requires ongoing care as an adult, like cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.
  • Live with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD) that prevent the person from reaching legal independence or maturity, like some forms of autism or Down syndrome

Mental health conservatorships are also an option when someone has a mental illness or other disorder with symptoms that make them a danger to themselves or others. These might include:

  • Schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorders.
  • Severe bipolar disorder. 
  • Clinical depression.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

Contrary to popular belief, addiction does not qualify someone for a mental health conservatorship, unless substance abuse stems from a serious brain disorder or mental illness listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). 


What are the different types of conservatorships?

There are four main types of guardianship for adults:

  • A physical conservatorship grants authority over health and life, including where a conservatee lives, what type of medical care they receive, and whether they move into a care facility or community living center. 
  • A financial conservatorship gives someone authority over a conservatee’s finances, including their bank accounts, investments, credit, belongings, and property ownership. Under a financial conservatorship, the ward cannot access bank accounts, credit cards, or certain property without approval—usually a signature—from the conservator. 
  • A limited conservatorship grants authority over some aspects of a conservatee’s life, but not all. Often, limited conservatorships are for adults with mental disabilities who require some, but not constant, care. For example, a limited conservatorship might allow the parents of an adult with Down syndrome to continue caring for their child, while giving the conservatee autonomy like holding a job and choosing where they live. 
  • A general conservatorship grants someone full authority over all aspects of the conservatee’s life, including finances, autonomy, healthcare, intellectual or developmental disability services, and all other significant decisions.  

Conservatorships can be permanent, short-term (no more than 90 days), or temporary (lasting for a limited amount of time or under limited, changeable circumstances). 


How do you set up a conservatorship?

You’ll need to work with a conservatorship attorney or conservatorship lawyer to start legal proceedings. Conservatorships are usually handled by judges or magistrates in family courts or state probate courts. 

To determine whether a conservatorship is necessary, the court asks two main questions:

  • Is the individual capable of providing for their basic needs, like shelter, sanitation, and food? 
  • Is the individual a danger to themselves or others? 

The court examines medical records and hears testimony both from the person seeking the conservatorship and the potential ward. Disability rights attorneys and other experts may also offer testimony. Conservatorships can only be granted after a full hearing to give the court the chance to hear both sides of the story.

Anyone put under a conservatorship has the legal right to challenge this decision in court, but ultimately, the decision whether to grant or remove a conservatorship rests with the judge. 


What are the pros of a conservatorship?

Conservatorships can be extremely beneficial for families that need them. The pros of conservatorships include:

  • Flexibility in meeting an adult’s changing needs. A conservator can find help for disabled people that they may not be able to find for themselves. 
  • Speed and convenience. Conservators can make decisions that grant their wards immediate care or life changes, like moving into an assisted living facility. 
  • Safety. Turning over important factors like finances to a trusted individual can keep adults under conservatorships safe from scammers, elder abuse, or dangerous living conditions. Conservatorships can also help someone resisting treatment receive the medical care they need.
  • Organization. A conservator can keep track of legal documents, contracts, and confidential records that their conservatee may need access to in emergencies. 


What are the cons of a conservatorship? 

Despite their benefits, conservatorships also carry risks for the ward and the conservator. Conservatorships are: 

  • Expensive. Adult guardian attorneys and conservatorships can be expensive court cases, and even after one is granted, conservators usually have a legal responsibility to continue checking in with the courts. Repeated filings, court visits, and hearings can lead to financial hardship. 
  • Public record. Anyone can look up a conservatee’s assets and the nature of their incapacity, which can cause embarrassment and undue stress for families.
  • Emotionally difficult. A conservatorship essentially strips someone of their ability to make their own decisions, which can be humiliating for people who don’t believe they need that kind of oversight. Even with the best interests at heart, someone who seeks a conservatorship may damage their relationship with their conservatee. 


How do courts prevent conservatorship abuse? 

Conservatorships are not always in the best interest of the conservatee. Famous cases like singer Britney Spears’s fight to reclaim her autonomy from her father show the very real possibility of abuse. If someone is placed under a conservatorship, they no longer have control over their own life. 

Conservatees are vulnerable to:

  • Financial exploitation
  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • Neglect

Courts work to prevent conservatorship abuse through: 

  • Required court supervision of the conservator. Depending on the jurisdiction, courts might require conservators to get written permission before making big decisions on behalf of their ward.
  • Financial reporting. Some courts require conservators to submit a list of the ward’s assets—property, finances, investments, etc.—when the conservatorship starts. They must also file regular updates on these assets, which the courts can examine for signs of abuse like unpaid bills, missing funds, or disappearing belongings.
  • Conservatorship petitions. Anyone can file a petition if they suspect conservatorship abuse, whether the person filing is a loved one, family member, or the conservatee themselves. Courts can dissolve conservatorships or appoint new conservators. 


What are possible alternatives to a conservatorship?

Other options like the Self-Determination Program (SDP) offer legal structure while still allowing people with disabilities to take control of their own care. Born from the desire of disability advocates and community members to create a more person-centered approach, self-determination programs are an empowering alternative to conservatorships that honors someone’s needs with informed, person-centered care.

With support from a team, a person with disabilities is provided a budget and encouraged to use their own voice, take back agency, and decide the direction of their life. To learn more, see Exploring the Self-Determination Program in The United States.

In some cases, it’s best for a person with disabilities to live under a conservatorship. Putting decision-making power in the hands of the conservator can make life easier for the conservatee. In other cases, programs like the Self-Determination Program are a better choice because they allow people with disabilities to maintain their independence. 

Whichever arrangement you choose, be sure to consult with a guardianship attorney or conservatorship attorney to understand your rights. 


Where can I get more information about conservatorships? 

To learn more about conservatorships, contact a guardianship lawyer. 

If you’re not sure where to start, Ability Central offers a comprehensive database of nonprofits offering services related to financial planning, elder care, and caring for adults with disabilities. Use the Service Locator tool to find an organization near you.


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