Conservatorship vs. Guardianship: Understanding The Differences

If you worry about the future of an aging or incapacitated loved one, you want them to be protected to the fullest extent of the law. Conservatorships and guardianships are two legal arrangements for managing the affairs another person when they have not created a Power of Attorney or Health Care Directive. Both roles come with different legal responsibilities and restrictions, so it is important to understand the differences between the roles so that you can make informed decisions on your loved one’s behalf.

Similar Roles, Different Responsibilities

Differences between a conservatorship and a guardianship lies in the functions a designated decision-making individual can perform on the ward’s behalf.

When an adult lacks the capacity to understand and make financial decisions for themself, a court may appoint someone to do so on their behalf through a legal process called conservatorship. The court-designated individual (the conservator) has the legal authority to make financial decisions on behalf of the person under the conservatorship, called the ward. These financial functions could include asset management, entering and leaving contractual agreements.

A guardianship is a legal relationship between a minor (someone under the age of 18) or an incapacitated adult who needs help making personal decisions and the guardian. Individuals who may be subject to guardianship include those who are unable to determine or communicate their personal decisions or are unable to meet fundamental needs such as healthcare, clothing, and shelter. Once appointed by the court the guardian has the legal authority and responsibility to make decisions about the ward’s personal welfare, including decisions about medical treatment, living arrangements, and education.

Ways to Avoid Conservatorship and Guardianship

Both Conservatorships and Guardianships require going through the court system.  There are requirements someone serving as a conservator or guardian needs to prove to the court before a judge formally appoints an individual into either role.  Any court proceeding takes time and money to complete.  Working with an estate planning attorney and having a comprehensive estate plan in place is a way you can avoid your family needing to pursue these options on your behalf if there is ever a time you are no longer able to manage your financial affairs or personal wellbeing.