What Is the Difference Between Conservatorship and Guardianship?

A conservatorship and guardianship are similar in responsibility, but where they differ is in the scope of their duties. Both conservatorships and guardianships involve being responsible for an adult, or ward, who has become incapacitated due to illness, disease, accident, or some other reason. And in both cases, the guardian or conservator is usually a court-appointed adult who can take responsibility for the ward. The main difference between the two is that they are responsible for different aspects of the ward’s life, and are given control over different things.

Roles and Responsibilities of a Guardian

A guardian is somebody who’s appointed by a court to act on behalf of an incapacitated adult. In order for a person to be appointed a guardian, a court must first hold a hearing to determine whether the adult in question is in fact incapacitated, based on whether or not he or she is capable of making sound decisions. If the court finds the person incapable of making those decisions, a guardian will be chosen who becomes responsible for:

  • Making decisions on the ward’s behalf
  • Looking after legal matters
  • Taking care of the ward’s daily personal needs
  • Making health care decisions
  • Making sure the ward gets necessary medical and dental treatment
  • Managing living arrangements

Duties of a Conservator

A conservator is similar to a guardian in that a conservator is appointed by the court to be responsible for and make decisions on behalf of a ward. The major difference, however, is that whereas a guardian takes care of legal, medical, and personal affairs, a conservator is solely responsible for financial and estate-related matters, including:

  • Managing bank accounts
  • Handling investments
  • Paying bills
  • Looking after investment properties and other real estate
  • Selling and buying bonds and stocks
  • Transferring assets

Because a conservator is in charge of the finances, guardians and conservators must often work together to make decisions that are in the best interest of the ward.

Likely Candidates for Guardians and Conservators

A guardianship and conservatorship can be granted to any adult who is competent, responsible, and capable of making sound decisions. This could include a friend, parent, child, sibling, spouse, neighbor, or even a professional guardian. In some cases, a concerned party, such as a daughter, will request a guardianship or conservatorship (over a father, for instance), if she feels that her father is no longer capable of making sound decisions for himself. In that case, the court will hold a hearing to determine whether or not the woman’s father is incapacitated, and whether she should be granted a guardianship or conservatorship.

Preventing the Court from Appointing a Guardian or Conservator

If the thought of having a court-appointed guardian taking control over your life and assets doesn’t sound appealing, don’t worry—you’re not alone. And luckily, there are things you can do to prevent this from happening in the future. Namely, there are several legal documents in which you can name your own disability trustee or appoint your own guardian and conservator should you become incapacitated, including a:

  • Revocable trust
  • Living will
  • Power of attorney
  • Durable power of attorney

It’s worthwhile noting that in some states, the term guardian is applied to one fiduciary who is given responsibility over every aspect of a ward’s life, including the finances. Regardless of the terminology used, the only time a guardian or conservator will be given such responsibility is if you become incapacitated, but you can avoid this situation by appointing your own guardian in one of a variety of legal documents.

That way, you can choose the person that will be making decisions on your behalf, and you’ll have all your wishes laid out in advance to help give that person guidance when taking care of you.

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