Whether you are writing out your will or you are embroiled in a custody battle that ends with your children being cared for by someone other than you or their other parent, it’s important to know the difference between guardianship and a conservator. You should also understand these terms if you have a child with special needs who will need care throughout his or her life. Here is your guide to the difference between guardianship and conservatorship so you know who is responsible for what aspects of your child’s life.
What Is Guardianship?
For a minor child or an adult who cannot make his or her own decisions, the guardian is the person who will make choices regarding where the child goes to school, where they live, and what types of medical care they will have. If you are making a will, the guardian is normally the person the minor children will live with should you (and your child’s other parent) die before the children turns 18.
If you are the parent of a child or adult with certain special needs, guardianship might instead be designated as someone who chooses where your child will live. This might be with them, but it also might be in a home for people with special needs. Or your child might be able to live on his or her own as an adult but will need someone to make sure their medical needs are met; that is something that the person with guardianship will take on.
What Is a Conservator?
A conservator, sometimes called the guardian of the estate, is the person who handles the finances of a child or adult who is unable to make those decisions on his or her own. Usually, the conservator is the same person as the guardian, but other times, it’s a different person. In the case of a parental death, the conservator will handle the life insurance and the portion of the estate left to the children. If the children are minors, they will gain control of these assets at the age of majority or at another age specified in the will (sometimes age 21 or 25).
If you have an adult child with special needs that won’t be able to handle his or her own finances, appointing a conservator can ensure that your child’s needs will be met after your death. The conservator can allocate the money in your estate, from your life insurance, or from whatever sources your child is getting funds.
Appointing a Guardian and Conservator for Your Child
In cases where the parents in a family have died or they are unable or unfit to make a decision as to who will act as their children’s guardian and/or conservator, a judge might make those appointments. This is why it’s very important to have a will drawn up; if the family cannot come to a decision that a judge is willing to approve, someone you would not want might end up raising or being responsible for your child’s guardianship.
Here are some considerations to keep in mind as you decide on guardianship or a conservator for your child:
- Keep an open mind. While the obvious choice might be your sibling or another close family member, evaluate whether a friend might be a better option. Sometimes the best guardians and conservators are not part of your family. You will want to choose someone who will love your children as though they were their own, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a family member.
- Consider the person’s values. Would they make the same or similar choices that you would when faced with a decision? If they have their own children, do you generally agree with their parenting choices? If you are choosing a conservator, consider how they are with money. If their own finances are not in order, they probably should not be in charge of your child’s finances.
- Think about how the responsibility would fit their lifestyle. Is the person already responsible for their own young children? If so, think about how they would integrate your children into their household. Is your candidate older than you are? Would they be likely to have the stamina and energy required to keep up with your children?
- Talk to them before making a final decision. It’s best to narrow down your options to more than one person. You will want to talk to your first choice and see if they can make the commitment. If they say no, it will be easier for you to handle if you have another person to approach. Try not to have hard feelings; understand that this is not a commitment that should be made lightly.
If you have questions about choosing the right person to have legal guardianship or be the conservator for your child, consider asking for help from a legal resource center like National Family Solutions.