November 17, 2014
As an elder law attorney in Sacramento with considerable experience, certain questions are asked over and over again. One area that sometimes requires explanation is the difference between conservatorships and powers of attorney.
Conservatorships for Elders
Conservatorships come into play when an adult experiences some sort of issue that leads to a mental disability. Elder lawyers see this type of situation with the onset of dementia, for example, but there are other causes, such as a brain injury, or developmentally disabled adults. If the elder adult is unable to make responsible financial or healthcare decisions for himself or herself, the courts can appoint someone to make them instead. “Guardian” is a common term for this position, but California courts use the term “conservator,” reserving the term “guardian” for minors children. The person for whom the decisions are now being made is often called the “conservatee” (or “ward” for guardianships).
A conservator is typically authorized to make most of the important decisions for the conservatee regarding things like health care, finances and legal proceedings. There are times, however, when the conservator may need to obtain court approval before their decisions become final. Additionally, it is possible for there to be a “conservator” in charge of finances (conservator of the estate) and a “conservator” in charge of other types of decisions (conservator of the person).
Conservatorships are not something that are handed out lightly. Having one’s independence handed over to another is profound, and therefore elder lawyers work with the family to exhaust other options first.
Powers of Attorney for Elders
A senior will often find that they have more freedom when they choose to give someone power of attorney. The power of attorney is similar in that it gives another person the right to make decisions in case of incapacitation, but it is more restrictive. For example, the elder lawyer may be directed to draft the power of attorney to only allow the “agent” to have control over certain types of decisions. (Again, healthcare, finances, and legal are some of the more common areas covered.)
Powers of attorney can be limited, too. For example, if a client is going to be out of town while a legal transaction is taking place, they might direct their elder lawyer to give a third party the power of attorney to represent them. Or, they may only give the agent power of attorney for certain activities, such as signing checks to pay monthly bills.
Comparing the Two
One of the biggest differences between the two is that the agent with a power of attorney is chosen by the individual, whereas a conservator is appointed by the courts. When a senior works with a Sacramento elder lawyer to draw up the power of attorney, they are able to choose someone they trust to have their best interests in mind. On the other hand, when the courts choose a conservator, they will be using legal precedence rather than considering what the senior would prefer.