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How general and limited California conservatorships differ

Sometimes incapacity prevents a person, like an elderly parent or a developmentally disabled child, from making sound life decisions. Conservatorships provide a legal remedy to protect vulnerable loved ones from financial and other abuses.

Probate conservatorship is the judicial process by which a conservator is appointed to make choices for a conservatee. With proof of incapacity and a court's permission, some or all of the legal and civil rights of a conservatee are transferred to a conservator.

Decisions about where to live, how to spend money and when to seek medical treatment become the conservator's responsibility. Dementia patients may require someone else to make all their life decisions. In a limited conservatorship, reserved only for developmentally disabled adults, certain personal rights may be retained.

Parents often seek a limited conservatorship for a developmentally disabled child who is on the brink of legal adulthood. Without conservatorship, parents may not interfere with an adult child's decisions even when the choices cause personal or financial ruin. Limited conservatorships extend parents' rights and give grown children some decision-making leeway.

Developmentally disabled adults, affected by conditions like epilepsy, autism or intellectual incapacity, often have the ability to manage some of their own needs. Courts help establish which choices will be made by a conservator and which will be made by the conservatee.

A limited conservatee may be capable of choosing a residence or educational goals but incapable of making medical decisions, understanding contracts or directing interpersonal relationships. The cases can be customized to fit a conservatee's abilities.

Conservatees are supported by nonprofit regional centers that provide contracted services and foster a disabled person's independence. The centers provide assessments in conservatorship cases with reports of disabled individuals' abilities and limitations.

Parents who wish to petition for a limited conservatorship may begin the legal action before a child's eighteenth birthday. Attorneys recommend an early filing so the conservatorship is in place the moment a developmentally disabled child transitions to adulthood.

Source:, "Estate Planning: Limited conservatorships and developmentally disabled persons," Dennis Fordham, March 9, 2013

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