Published On: Tue, Feb 20th, 2024

Are There Any Differences Between a Conservator and a Guardian?

Within the legal landscape, both conservatorships and guardianships serve as vital tools designed to protect individuals who may not have the capacity to care for themselves or make their own decisions due to various circumstances or incapacities. 

Recently, the subject of conservatorships has made headlines. Britney Spears managed to break out from a 12-year conservatorship managed by her father, Cher recently petitioned the court to give her conservatorship over her adult son Elijah Blue, and Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s family is attempting to get a conservatorship over the singer following the death of his wife.

All of this attention on conservatorships and guardianships has led some to question the similarities and differences between the two. What could prompt the need for a conservatorship or guardianship? 

Attorney John Wood of Grant Park Legal Advisors joins us to clear up some of the confusion and misconceptions that follow these two legal protections.

Conservatorships and guardianships — vital tools of protection

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photo/ pixabay user succo

Many times, families or others close to an individual may consider entering a conservatorship or guardianship based on mental incapacitation due to age or dementia. Other times, drug use or the onset of a mental illness could lead to talk of the need for a conservatorship or guardianship. 

Whichever route a family ultimately chooses can often depend on where they live and the laws within their particular state. 

“In many states, the two are essentially the same,” says Wood. “A conservatorship is a form of guardianship, but the differences start to appear when reviewing how states render their own definitions of each, separating these protections into two distinct parts.”


The differences between conservators and guardians lie in the purpose of the two protections, the scope of authority, and the duration of which either can be put into place. 

“In Illinois, for example, you may have a guardianship of the person that would put you in charge of their day-to-day decisions, such as health care, living arrangements, travel, or education,” Wood explains. “In cases involving minors or a diagnosis of dementia, we often see guardianship is granted for both the estate and the person.”

Wood adds that, while distinctions can vary by state, they typically fall under one or more of the following three categories: 

  1. Purpose 

Conservatorships primarily focus on managing the financial affairs and assets of the incapacitated person. The conservator is appointed to handle tasks such as paying bills, managing investments, and handling financial transactions. With guardianship, however, the focus is typically on making healthcare and personal decisions for the individual, such as choice of living arrangements. 

  1. Scope of Authority 

Depending on the state where protections are issued, the scope of authority for conservators or guardians can vary. 

“Scope of authority depends on the state that granted the guardianship or conservatorship,” Wood says. “For example, in Illinois, a Guardian for the Estate is what some other states refer to as a conservator. However, their scope is still limited to financial and estate matters, even though they are considered a guardian, which is typically healthcare and personal matters.”

Additionally, depending on the state where the conservatorship is granted, conservators can often make decisions for the individual without oversight from the court. Conversely, in many cases, guardians have some court oversight of their decision-making ability.

  1. Duration 

Both conservatorships and guardianships can be deemed temporary or permanent. According to Wood, this status largely depends on the diminished capacities of the person needing protection. 

Given the controversy surrounding the Britney Spears conservatorship, many misconceptions may have been built around conservatorships and guardianships. “Both are complex legal mechanisms that can easily cause friction between family members and a widespread lack of understanding by the public,” says Wood.

For example, many believe that both conservatorships and guardianships are tools meant only for the elderly when, in reality, both can be established for a person of any age. Moreover, there is a belief that those under conservatorship or guardianship lose all their rights and autonomy. 

“Conservatorships and guardianships are tools meant to serve as additional protection and assistance for individuals who require them,” Wood clarifies. “Their intended purpose is not to grant unilateral control to any single person.” 

Wood adds that these tools needn’t be viewed as abusive or exploitative measures, despite this having been the situation in some well-publicized cases. Instead, they should be considered a means of providing support and protection to individuals who need it the most. 

Whether the concern is over financial matters or the personal care of a loved one, a skilled attorney can help you navigate the muddy waters of conservatorships and guardianships. “Their knowledge can help you better understand which one applies to your specific situation and how to best go about getting your loved one the protection and support they need,” Wood says.

Author: Rohan Singh

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