When an adult is physically or mentally unable to take care of themselves, they may need the court to appoint someone else to do it. A conservatorship is a court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the "conservator") to care for another adult (called the "conservatee") or to manage their property or finances.
What Is a Conservatorship?
Conservatorship is a court case in which a judge appoints a responsible adult, a conservator, to care for another adult, a conservatee, or to manage the conservatee's property and finances (estate).
- A conservatorship to care for an adult, their food, clothing, health, living situation and other personal needs, is a conservatorship of the person.
- A conservatorship to manage an adult's finances, like paying bills, collecting income, managing their property, and more, is a conservatorship of the estate.
- Being appointed conservator of the person does NOT automatically make that person the conservator of the estate. If someone wants to be conservator of both, the person and the estate, they must petition the court to appoint them as both.
A conservator can be related to the conservatee, like the spouse or domestic partner of the adult who needs care, or they can also be a child, a parent, or other relative. If not a relative, the conservator can also be a government agency, a nonprofit, or another person that the judge approves to care for the adult.
The court looks at the best interests of the conservatee and the skills and ability of the proposed conservator to decide who should be appointed conservator. If the proposed conservatee has nominated someone and has the capacity to express a preference, the court usually appoints that person as conservator, unless the person is not capable to serve and it is NOT in the best interests of the proposed conservatee.
If the proposed conservatee does not or cannot nominate anyone, the law has an order of preference for who should be the conservator:
- Spouse or domestic partner
- Adult child
- Public Guardian
- Any other person approved by the Judge
If someone needs a conservator but there is no suitable relative or family friend that can be the conservator, there are some options:
- Call the Aging and Adult Services Division of the County of San Mateo Health System: 650-573-3900. If they believe a conservatorship is needed, they will refer the case to the Public Guardian. They have experienced personal conservators and property administrators who can serve as conservator.
- Call the Court Investigator's office at 650-261-5068 and ask about appointing a professional fiduciary. Professional fiduciaries charge fees, but the court must approve all fees paid by the person to be helped.
- Other places you can call if you are concerned about an elderly person who can no longer care for themselves or is being neglected or abused (including financial abuse):
- Adult Protective Services: 1-800-675-8437, or
- Senior Advocates Program, Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County: 1-800-381-8898.
There are 3 types of conservatorship cases.
- General Conservatorship - for adults who cannot take care of themselves or make financial decisions because of, for example, advanced age, dementia, or physical injury. These conservatees are often elderly people, but can also be younger people who have been seriously impaired, like in a car accident, for example.
- Limited Conservatorship - conservatorships for adults with developmental disabilities who cannot fully care for themselves or their finances. Because developmentally disabled people can usually do many things on their own, they do not need the higher level of care or help that a general conservatorship provides. The judge will only give a conservator limited power to do things the conservatee cannot do without help. The goal of a limited conservatorship is to allow a person to keep as much independence as possible. Click to learn more about limited conservatorships.
- Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Conservatorship (Mental Health Conservatorship) - for adults with serious mental health illnesses who need special care. These conservatorships are used for people who usually need very restrictive living arrangements (like living in locked facilities) and require extensive mental health treatment (like very powerful drugs to control behavior). Conservatees in LPS conservatorships cannot or will not agree to the special living arrangements or treatment on their own. LPS conservatorships must be started by a local government agency. If you believe that this is the type of help someone needs, contact San Mateo County's Aging and Adult Services Division to see if the Public Guardian should be appointed as conservator.
Before asking the court to appoint a conservator, you must be sure that a conservatorship is the least restrictive and best way to meet the person's needs. If there is another way, the court may not grant your petition.
You may not need a conservatorship if the person who needs help:
- Can cooperate with a plan to meet their basic needs.
- Has the capacity and willingness to sign a power of attorney naming someone to help with their finances or health-care decisions.
- Has only social security or welfare income every month and the Social Security Administration can appoint you Representative Payee. The Representative Payee is the person the beneficiary allows to receive social security checks in their name on behalf of the beneficiary.
- Is married or is in a domestic partnership and the spouse or partner can handle financial transactions. The property must be community property or in joint accounts.
Some alternatives to a conservatorship
For Medical and Personal Care Decisions:
- Advance health care directive
- Court authorization for medical treatment
- Informal personal care arrangements
- Elder or dependent adult abuse restraining orders, (which include protection from financial abuse and neglect)
For Financial Decisions:
- Power of attorney
- A substitute payee for public benefits (like veterans' benefits or social security benefits)
- Joint title on bank accounts or other property
- Living trusts (also called "inter vivos" trusts)
- Informal arrangements
As a conservator of the person, you will have to:
- Arrange for the conservatee's care and protection.
- Decide where the conservatee will live.
- Make arrangements for the conservatee's:
- Health care,
- Personal care,
- Recreation, and
- Get approval from the court for certain decisions about the conservatee's health care or living arrangements.
- To ask the court for special medical powers, like to place the conservatee in a long-term care facility or give them special drugs, a doctor or licensed psychologist must fill out the Capacity Declaration (GC-335) as part of your conservatorship case.
- Report to the court on the conservatee's current status.
As a conservator of the estate of the conservatee, you will have to:
- Manage the conservatee's finances,
- Protect the conservatee's income and property,
- Make a list of everything in the estate,
- Make a plan to make sure the conservatee's needs are met,
- Make sure the conservatee's bills are paid,
- Invest the conservatee's money responsibly and in approved investments,
- Make sure the conservatee gets all the benefits he or she is eligible for,
- Make sure the conservatee's taxes are filed and paid on time,
- Keep exact financial records, and
- Make regular reports of the financial accounts to the court and other interested persons.
Keep in mind that the conservatee may still have the power to make a will. The Court may let you make a will if:
- the conservatee is too sick to make a will or estate plans, or
- the conservatorship was established because someone was taking advantage of the conservatee or unduly influencing them.
The court can approve the conservator's use of "Substituted Judgment" to make a will, a trust, or both, to make sure the conservatee has an estate plan. The court may also let you use this power to change or revoke a trust, make gifts, change insurance policies or annuities, and sign contracts for the conservatee.
You or any other interested person, like a family member, can petition the court to ask for Substituted Judgment. This can be very complicated so talk to a lawyer.
Read the Handbook for Conservators to learn more about a conservator's duties and responsibilities.
- Watch the video: With Heart: Understanding Conservatorship.
- Some of the court forms shown on the video are outdated, but the information the video provides is current and relevant and may help you understand the process better.
- Visit the Sacramento Law Library's webpage on Law 101: Seniors and Disability for videos, packets, and more.
- Visit the California Courts website Conservatorship pages to get information, instructions, forms, and more.
What is Conservatorship?
Click for a computer program that can help you fill out all forms for a Limited Conservatorship by answering simple questions.
Visit the Probate Division's web page to find tentative rulings, ADR program, and more.