10 Critical Things All Retirees Need to Know About Conservatorships

Who will be in charge if you are unable to make decisions about your own health and well-being?

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Updated June 6, 2024
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You may have heard about conservatorships from Hollywood news stories about Britney Spears or Amanda Bynes. But not-so-famous people may also need a conservator.

Conservators can be appointed by a court for adults who are physically or mentally unable to manage their affairs, particularly for retirees.

If you want to prepare for your retirement, here’s what you need to know about a conservatorship.

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What is a conservator?

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A conservator is the person appointed by the court to manage the affairs of someone unable to manage their finances or health. A conservator, or adult guardian, is typically a family member or close friend, but ultimately the final decision is left up to the judge.

By planning ahead and giving someone durable powers of attorney for health care and finances, you will not need the court to make this decision.

How does someone become a conservator?

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A case will need to be presented before a judge in a legal hearing. There will need to be adequate proof provided that shows the potential conservatee is not fit to manage their own affairs in order for the conservatorship to be agreed upon.

The judge will also appoint the conservator. That’s usually a spouse or blood relative, but could also be a professional, if there are no other suitable options.

Are there different types of conservatorship?

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There are different types of conservatorship, depending on the level of needs the conservatee has. You can have a limited conservatorship, where the conservator is limited to only a specific area of management, like financial or medical decisions.

You can also have a full conservatorship, where the individual has all decision-making powers in the case of someone who is unable to choose for themselves, like an elderly parent with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

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Do conservators get paid?

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It depends. Conservators are reimbursed for their expenses through the conservatees’ assets. Typically, only a professional conservator would be paid, but a relative can request “fair” compensation through the court as well.

What can a conservator do?

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Unless otherwise limited or stated by the court, a conservator has the ability to make the majority of decisions for the conservatee’s well-being, including:

  • Medical care
  • Living arrangements
  • Nutrition
  • Transportation
  • Recreation
  • Education
  • Financial decisions

What’s the difference between a conservatorship and a guardianship?

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Both a conservator and guardian act on the behalf of someone else. In some states, they are essentially the same. However, there is a slight distinction between the two.

A guardianship has control of day-to-day decisions for a minor until they come of age. A conservatorship is for an incapacitated adult, can be limited in power, and is in place until the court lifts the order.

What’s the difference between a conservatorship and power of attorney?

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A power of attorney is chosen by an individual to act legally on their behalf. It can be given and rescinded freely at any time. The scope can be set by the appointing individual.

A conservator is chosen by the court after a hearing is held and remains in place until the court deems it no longer necessary. The judge will decide how inclusive the conservatorship will need to be.

Are there any checks on the conservator to prevent abuse?

Peter Maszlen/Adobe woman taking care of senior woman

Yes, conservators are responsible for reporting to the court. Essentially, the conservator is supposed to be a neutral party acting on behalf of the person. A benefit of a conservatorship is that the court system has rules and reports set up to make sure the person’s affairs are being adequately managed.

The specific laws for the required duties of a conservator vary state to state. For example, in Utah, an appointed conservator is required to report financial transactions made on the conservatee’s behalf once per year to the court.

How do you end a conservatorship?

Alexander Raths/Adobe doctor prescribing medications to senior patient

Because a conservator is appointed by the court, it is the court that must dismiss them as well — even if both parties agree the conservatorship is no longer needed. If both parties are not in agreement, there will be a hearing to determine the outcome. This may include testimony from all parties and potential witness statements from caretakers or physicians.

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Are there any alternatives to conservatorship?

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Power of attorney and a well-established trust can be a good alternative to conservatorship. This allows you to choose who will make decisions for you when you are no longer able to, rather than leaving that up for the legal system to decide.

If the power of attorney is not thorough or doesn’t include certain powers like making medical decisions, your loved ones may still end up seeking a conservatorship if you become incapacitated.

Bottom line

Robert Kneschke/Adobe happy nurse sitting with male retiree

It can be intimidating to think about choosing a person to make decisions on your behalf, but doing so can prevent your family and loved ones from needing to seek the court’s assistance to help care for you.

While you are working hard to build wealth, you don’t want to lose control of it if you become incapacitated. Working with an estate attorney, you may be able to come up with less-restrictive solutions to help you manage your health and finances as you age.

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Holly Humbert

Holly is a writer who recognizes that there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to personal finance. She is passionate about entrepreneurship, women in business, and financial literacy. With more than four years of experience, her work has been featured on MarketWatch and The Ways to Wealth.