What Is Conservatorship?

Conservatorship is a legal status to which a court appoints a person to manage an incapacitated or incompetent individual's or minor's financial affairs. Such a person may also serve as a guardian, who is responsible for establishing and monitoring the physical care of the individual, and managing their living arrangements. In some states, such as California, both roles are called conservatorship, with the guardian role termed "conservator of the person" and the financial role called "conservator of the estate."

Conservatorship Explained

Conservatorship and guardianship generally are not interchangeable, but the same person may serve in both roles. However, terminology varies to some extent in different jurisdictions. Guardianship generally is the appointment of a person or entity to oversee the physical and medical care of an individual with limited capacity. Conservatorship, on the other hand, generally refers to the designation of a conservator to manage the financial affairs of an incapacitated or incompetent individual, minor, or older adult with limited capacity.

In some jurisdictions and states, a conservatorship is referred to as a guardianship and conservators are sometimes related to as trustees.

Individual vs. Organization Conservatorship

There are two ways to establish a conservatorship, depending on whether it's for an individual or a corporation or organization.

For individuals

A court order will establish a conservatorship for an individual who is a minor or a physically or mentally disabled person. Mentally disabled includes those who are suicidal, psychotic, demented, or disabled to the extent that the person is unable to make legal, financial, and medical decisions on their own behalf.

Elderly individuals—specifically those with Alzheimer's or dementia—are also included among individuals who may fall under a conservatorship. For conservatorships of individuals, mental capacity must be determined by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or physician with extensive experience and training to diagnose conditions like dementia. Every diagnosis or determination must be documented and verified before a conservatorship over an individual can be ordered.

In some cases, as happened with Britney Spears, the person subject to the conservatorship can sue to have it removed at a later date if they believe it is no longer necessary. In addition, a conservatorship for a minor generally ends when the child reaches the age of majority, usually 18.

For organizations or corporations

In this form, a statutory or regulating authority creates the conservatorship. In reference to government control of private organizations or corporations, such as in the case of Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Freddie Mac, conservatorship entails authority that is temporary. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) acts as a conservator for these two agencies. The conservatorships, established during the financial crisis in 2008, allowed government intervention in the agencies' management in response to financial pressures from the deterioration of the housing market.