On a recent trip to visit family friends, I had the opportunity to hear the story of a dear friend's older sister who had recently passed away. My friend was kind enough to allow me to share that story here. As I do not share the personal stories of my clients, I felt this was a good opportunity to illustrate one way that Conservatorships can be used to protect individuals who can no longer care for themselves. Let's call my friend Sally and her sister Anne.
Sally's sister Anne had long been suffering from severe mental health issues. Over time, Anne also developed early onset dementia. Eventually, she became so ill that she was unable to take care of herself. Anne's husband also found himself unable to deal with the extreme stress her care required. As such, Sally told me that "the state" had to take over Anne's care. The "state" i.e. the county, will only get involved with the most dire situations, for which no alternative can be found.
What does "the state taking over her sister's care" mean?
What Sally meant was that the County, specifically the Public Guardians Office - assumed the role of Conservator for her sister. While the "conservatee" (Anne) resided in Colorado, the law there is very similar to California. In both Colorado and California, the office of the Public Guardian is a county agency that provides conservatorship services when "there is no one else who is qualified and willing to act." The Public Guardians office is generally part of the county's Health Services Department.
When there is no one who is willing or able to take on the role of guardian or "conservator" as it is called in California, a professional Conservator (typically a licensed fiduciary) or the Public Guardian can step in to assist.
When is a Professional Conservator or Public Guardian Necessary?
In my friend's situation, her sister had a combination of mental illness and early onset dementia. The bottom line was that Anne was no longer capable of caring for herself, and lacked the mental capacity to make health or financial decisions. This meant that either an agent under a Power of Attorney needed to step in, or a Conservatorship was necessary.
My friend's sister was married but had no children or other family willing to look after her. While her husband tried to care for her, he was unable to cope with her increasingly dire situation and eventually had his own breakdown. In situations where there is no one else and little or no funds for a professional, the Public Guardian will step in to manage a person's care. If there are funds available, generally a professional Conservator (licensed fiduciary) will be hired.
Conservatorships are complicated legal proceedings that often involve significant time and energy on behalf of the Conservator. They also place substantial legal liability upon the Conservator. It is thus understandable why many families turn to professional fiduciaries or their county for assistance.
Conservatorships can save lives. In my friend's case, the Public Guardian did not step in soon enough, and her sister died shortly after they took over her care. If you believe someone you know or love is no longer able to care for themselves or their finances, a Conservatorship may be the most effective way to help them.