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Conservatorship vs. Guardianship: What's the Difference?

4 min read
Oct 24, 2022

Generally, guardians have control over the every-day decisions and care of a minor. Conservators have similar control over an adult, but they’re typically limited to financial decisions.

If you’re confused about the difference between conservatorship and guardianship, you’re not alone. Legally, the two are very similar — and in some states, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. A lawyer can help educate you on the rules and processes of your local jurisdiction.

In the meantime, there’s more nuance to explore, so let’s compare a conservatorship and guardianship.

Guardianship vs. conservatorship basics

Although both guardianships and conservatorships involve one person having legal control over the decisions of another, there are notable differences between the two:



Control over day-to-day decisions

Control over financial decisions

Of a ward who is a minor (younger than 18)

Of an incapacitated adult

Until they come of age

Until the conservatorship is lifted

When is a guardian appointed?

A guardian may be named under a number of circumstances, but the most common is during estate planning. One or more individuals can be named as guardians in a will. In the event of the death of a child’s parents, the named individuals become their legal guardians.

Guardians can also be appointed temporarily. If the parents are going to be away for an extended period of time, or otherwise absent, they can name a temporary guardian to look after their children. This is done either by filing a guardianship application with courts or penning a letter of guardianship. The latter spells out exactly what responsibilities the guardian will have and for how long.

Appointing guardians ensures that children are looked after when their parents are unable to provide care. Guardians can be family members or close friends. If you have someone in mind you’d like to name as a guardian, be sure to discuss the responsibilities with them before finalizing your plans.

Example of guardianship

Alex and Greg are writing their wills. In the event of an early death, they want to make sure their child Abott will be taken care of. With the help of an estate attorney, they come up with a list of family and friends who could serve as Abott’s legal guardian.

After speaking with the candidates, they narrow it down to two individuals, Shea and Lin. Both are named as Abott’s legal guardians in Alex and Greg’s finalized wills. Should Alex and Greg pass away while Abott is still a minor, Shea and Lin will have legal control over day-to-day decisions until Abott comes of age.

When is a conservator appointed?

The court appoints a conservator when an adult is deemed incapacitated or incompetent. This may be due to a physical or mental disability, or both. Whatever the case, evidence of incapacitation must be presented at the conservatorship hearing.

Conservators are typically family members or close friends. Once a conservator is appointed, they have legal authority to make decisions regarding the conservatee’s financial and personal wellbeing. These decisions must be documented and are reviewed by the courts to make sure the conservator isn’t abusing their position.

A conservator can also be appointed in a limited capacity. Unlike standard conservatorships, this may involve an expiration date on the arrangement. It can also limit the conservator’s responsibilities to only the financial or personal needs of the conservatee.

Example of conservatorship

Alex and Greg are trying to decide what to do about Greg’s father, John. John is a widower, and he’s beginning to show signs of dementia. After a long conversation, Greg’s sister Dea agrees to become a conservator for their father.

John is examined by medical and psychiatric professionals, and evidence of his mental disability is presented at the conservatorship hearing. Dea is appointed as conservator. She manages John’s finances, keeping records of all her decisions for the court to review.

Get legal help with guardianship and conservatorship decisions

Appointing a guardian or conservator is an important life decision. That’s why it’s so important to educate yourself on local laws, legal terminology, and processes.

Fortunately, you don’t have to take on the burden alone. An estate attorney or other legal expert can provide the guidance you need to keep your loved ones cared for.

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