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Guardian vs. conservator for an adult with special needs

When a person with special needs reaches the age of 18, things change significantly. Not just for that individual, but for the family and loved ones that have been caring for them. As a legal adult, they are presumed to have more control over decisions in their life.

What happens if that individual isn’t capable of fully handling their affairs on their own? It is possible for parents or loved ones to continue to help. In this blog post, we’re going to explain two components - both of which require legal appointment - guardianship and conservatorship.

The responsibilities of a guardian

Guardianship is focused on an individual’s well-being. A guardian is responsible for protecting a person who may not be able to fully care for themselves. Oftentimes this means deciding where and how that individual – referred to as a ward or protected person – lives, or choosing the type of medical treatment they receive.

To become someone’s guardian, you must demonstrate to the Colorado courts that the individual in question cannot effectively make or communicate decisions, even with certain technological help, and that this disability may put their own physical health or safety at risk. The courts might limit the scope of a guardian’s powers based on a ward’s abilities.

A guardian is not responsible for handling someone’s financial affairs. That task may fall to a conservator.

The responsibilities of a conservator

Conservatorship is generally a money-related role. The conservator – which also requires court appointment – makes financial decisions for the protected person. This might include:

  • Deciding what to do with property and assets the individual owns
  • Paying bills
  • Accepting, changing or terminating contracts
  • Bringing or responding to legal actions

Just like with guardianship, a conservator’s powers might be carved out based on what the protected person is able to do independently. If that individual can handle small grocery purchases, for example, they may receive a monthly allowance to do their shopping, with the conservator handling other financial affairs.

Can one person serve as both?

It can make sense for a single person to serve as both guardian and conservator for another adult. Both are big responsibilities however, not to be taken lightly.

In some cases, you might consider selecting a professional fiduciary to serve as conservator, particularly if there is nobody in the family that has the financial acumen necessary for the role. The existence of a trust may also be a factor in that decision. Having a professional fiduciary handle necessary financial affairs for the protected person takes that burden off the family’s plate so they can focus on other aspects of caring for the individual.

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