What is a Conservatorship?
From a legal perspective, not everyone is able to make certain decisions for themselves. Minors, for example, are restricted because of their age and developmental state. Likewise, adults with certain mental limitations or age-related cognitive decline may not be capable of making fully informed decisions that they can genuinely understand.
That’s where conservatorship comes in. A conservator is a person appointed or approved by the courts to take responsibility for the fiances of another person, the conservatee, when that person can’t make financial decisions for themselves.
The specific rules and procedures for conservatorship will vary by jurisdiction. In some states, guardianship is synonymous with conservatorship, but in many cases, conservatorship caries a specific distinction.
When you get conservatorship over someone as a conservator, you become responsible for making most of their financial decisions. Unlike a guardian, who can only make limited financial decisions but has additional responsibilities for things like legal or medical issues, a conservator typically only handles significant financial considerations like managing assets and paying taxes. Often the same person will be the guardian and the conservator for a case, but not always.
Conservators must be able to demonstrate to the court that they are capable of taking care of the conservatee’s financial matters and that they will base all of their decisions on what is best for the conservatee. They will also have to prove why the conservatorship is necessary.
Conservators will need to carefully document the decisions they make, bills they pay, and money they move around. They’re usually required to file reports with the court to prove they are correctly and responsibly handling the conservatee’s finances.
Usually, a child’s parents automatically have the legal right to make important financial decisions for their child. But if the parents are no longer able to fulfill this role, they or the court may appoint a conservator.
Conservators of a minor child are often used if the parents die, are gravely ill, become severely mentally or physically disabled, or deemed unfit by the court because of issues like neglect or substance abuse. Many parents will include information on the conservators they want for their children as a term in their will.
In most jurisdictions, when a child conservatee turns 18, the conservorship ends. The conservator will need to submit paperwork about the child’s finances and fill out additional forms to indicate that they’ve handed financial control back to the conservatee.
Living parents who voluntarily or involuntarily transferred their child’s financial rights to a conservator may be able to revoke the conservatorship. If all parties agree to the revocation, it’s usually a simple matter of filling out the right forms. In some cases, a parent may need a hearing to convince a judge that they are capable of making sound financial decisions for their child again.
It’s not just minor children who might need the help of a conservator. Parents may find themselves needing a conservatorship over their adult children if the children have significant mental or physical disabilities, health problems, or other incapacity that makes it difficult or impossible to handle their finances on their own.
Other loved ones, organizations, or representatives could also be eligible for conservatorship of adults.
The conservator will need to appear in court to prove they meet the eligibility requirements to be a conservator, which usually necessitate a minimum age of 18, U.S. citizenship, and sound mind. If generally eligible, they’ll then need to demonstrate their ability to correctly fulfill the role of conservator. They’ll also need to prove that the conservatee requires a conservator. The court will often consider documents like medical records that show a disability or recommendations from doctors, counselors, or social workers when making their decision.
If the conservatee regains the capacity to make their own financial decisions, they can petition the court for a new hearing to get the conservatorship revoked.
It can be difficult to watch parents age, and even more so if they develop cognitive issues like dementia or other incapacitating conditions. When that happens, adult children may need to take conservatorship of their elderly parents to protect their assets.
Conservator children will need to petition the court to prove their ability to serve in that function, and to prove that their parents require the help of a conservator. Medical records and witness testimony may be required to demonstrate this need.
Many age-related cognitive declines develop over time. Seniors who realize they won’t be able to make their own financial decisions for much longer can request a conservator while they’re still of sound mind. The court will need to ensure this decision was made freely and that they are mentally capable of making that decision.
It’s a good idea for aging parents and their adult children to have conversations around conservatorship before the time comes. That way, the children will be better equipped to follow their parents’ wishes when making their financial decisions later on.
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