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How a Conservatorship Works in California


In California, a conservatorship involves a court-appointed individual or entity (known as a conservator) overseeing the personal and financial affairs of another person (known as a conservatee). The conservatee is deemed unable to manage those matters for themselves due to incapacity or disability. And the process can be accompanied by ongoing court supervision to ensure the conservatee’s best interests are upheld. If you need your more estate planning advice, consider working with a financial advisor.

What Is a Conservatorship?

A conservatorship is a legal arrangement whereby a court appoints a conservator to manage the affairs of a conservatee. Conditions that may require such an arrangement include advanced age, being a minor, significant disabilities or mental health challenges that impair the conservatee’s ability to make sound decisions or adequately protect their own interests.

The conservator’s scope of authority can be wide-ranging, allowing them to make critical decisions about the conservatee’s finances, health care and living arrangements. For example, financial duties might cover bill payments, investment oversight and property protection. In health care, the conservator may be responsible for choosing medical treatments and care providers. In terms of living situations, the conservator determines the most appropriate residence for the conservatee.

Conservatorship Rules in California

The process to establish a conservatorship generally begins with a petition to the court. This is followed by a legal evaluation of the individual’s capability to manage their affairs, which can require getting a medical assessment, notifying interested parties and attending court hearings. The court will then select a conservator, after taking into consideration their qualifications and the conservatee’s best interests.

In the Golden State, the California Probate Code provides the legal framework for conservatorships. Section 1400 outlines the process to establish a conservatorship, individuals whom a conservator may be appointed for, special provisions, periodic reviews and terminations, among other legal definitions and requirements.

California recognizes two types of conservatorships: one for personal care and another for managing financial matters. Both can structure specific management for the conservatee’s personal and financial needs separately.

Types of Conservatorships in California

A senior couple speaking with a court-appointed conservator who will manage the affairs of a family member.

Conservatorships in California are set up as general and limited conservatorships. Here’s how each one works:

  • General conservatorships are typically established for adults who, because of age, illness or injury, find themselves incapacitated and unable to meet their own basic needs or handle their financial affairs. This can include elderly individuals with conditions like dementia or adults who have sustained serious brain injuries. To determine the need for a general conservatorship, a formal court process involves an assessment by a court investigator, who plays a crucial role in the proceedings by evaluating the conservatee’s condition and making recommendations to the judge. The judge may then review medical reports, hear testimony from family members and consider other pertinent information before reaching a decision.
  • Limited conservatorships are designed specifically for adults with developmental disabilities who can manage certain aspects of their lives but need assistance with others. This form of conservatorship is crafted to provide necessary support while respecting the conservatee’s autonomy and allowing them to retain as much independence as possible. The conservator is granted authority only in specified areas, such as medical decisions or contractual agreements, thereby promoting an environment conducive to the personal growth and independence of individuals with developmental disabilities.

Considering the alternatives to conservatorship is also important. While conservatorship can be a fitting solution for many, it is not the only option available for personal care and estate management. Alternatives may include powers of attorney, healthcare directives or living trusts. A conservatorship might be chosen over these alternatives when the individual’s capacity to make informed decisions is severely impaired and they require a higher level of care and oversight.

How to Obtain a Conservatorship in California

To start the conservatorship process in California, you must prepare a series of legal documents. These typically include:

  • Petition for Appointment of Probate Conservator
  • Forms outlining the conservatee’s situation
  • Statements justifying the need for conservatorship

Once you have your documentation, the process can be divided into three general stages:

  • Filing and notification: After submitting all necessary paperwork, the petitioner must notify the conservatee and close relatives about the upcoming court hearing.
  • Court investigation: The court may appoint an investigator to look into the conservatee’s situation and report back their findings.
  • The hearing: During the court session, the judge reviews the evidence, listens to any objections, and assesses whether the proposed conservator is appropriate.

Bottom Line

A senior couple preparing documentation to set up a conservatorship in California.

A conservatorship is a legal arrangement designed to protect the personal and financial well-being of individuals who are unable to manage their own affairs due to incapacitation. In California, these arrangements are typically set up as general or limited conservatorships. Though you can also consider additional estate planning tools like a power of attorney or a healthcare directive, depending on the conservatee’s needs.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Estate planning should be part of your larger long-term financial plan. This can also include wealth building, retirement planning and tax strategies. A financial advisor can help you use specific strategies to bring all of your finances together. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • As you start your estate planning, consider this checklist to help you get started on the right track.

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