What Is the Difference Between Guardianship & Conservatorship?

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When an individual is unable to make decisions on their own behalf, family members or friends may request that a court appoint a guardian and a conservator, which are two very different roles. The courts generally only appoint these roles in the cases of a minor child, or an elderly person suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, or if someone suffers from a mental disability. You should not make the decision to have these roles appointed lightly, as once the courts become involved, the individual loses many basic rights.


Each state has its own definition and use of the terms guardian and conservator. Oregon, for example, recognizes both guardians and conservators, and treats them as separate entities. Washington state uses the terms guardian of the person and guardian of the estate, while Connecticut and California use conservator of the person and conservator of the estate. Most states also utilize the term guardian ad litem, a role very different from that of a guardian or conservator.


A guardian, guardian of the person or conservator of the person all refer to someone appointed by a court to make decisions about an individual’s personal care. Guardians make decisions regarding medical or other professional treatment, living situation and personal needs. In general, guardians can also place restrictions on the individual for their safety and well being, such as barring someone suffering from dementia or vision impairment from driving. However, they cannot make decisions regarding basic rights such as voting or marrying. Depending on the reason for appointing someone as a guardian, a court may order a full guardianship or may only allow a partial guardianship, where the guardian may make decisions regarding specific needs.


A conservator, guardian of the estate or conservator of the estate is also a court-appointed role, and the appointee may make financial decisions, but may not get involved in the person’s health and welfare. The typical conservator will take over the protected person’s financial affairs and will pay support, maintenance and other bills, collect debts owed to the individual, make investments as needed, and make decisions about the person’s real estate holdings. Conservators are responsible for managing the person’s entire financial estate, including denying or approving any contracts, unless the court has ordered a limited conservatorship focused on one specific aspect or portion of the estate. Although the courts usually prefer to appoint family members to this role, it may also appoint a professional conservator who is familiar with the accounting regulations and annual court filings.

Guardian Ad Litem

A guardian ad litem is a very limited guardianship role with a narrow focus. It usually comes into play only for minors, or those with a mental handicap. And it only gives the appointee the power to make decisions and lend advice through specific legal proceedings, such as custody or abuse cases.