Mental Health Conservatorship: A Family Guide

No one wants to take the decision-making ability away from a family member, but sometimes it’s necessary to step in when it means protecting your loved ones from hurting themselves or others. Mental Health Conservatorships are something most of us know very little about—but when you need one, you’re forced to take a crash course on the spot. Here’s what you need to know if you’ve been granted a conservatorship or are seeking one for your adult child or another family member who is in need of long-term mental health care.

Mental health disorders can make the most loving, bright individuals unable to care for themselves or make appropriate decisions about their everyday lives. Disorders like schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorders, and severe cases of bipolar disorder can result in a parent or other loved being granted a mental health conservatorship, but that’s just the beginning of the process.

What does your newfound status as a conservator mean? What does this role entail? And, most importantly, where do you go from here?

No doubt, you’ve tried multiple options to help your loved one before arriving at this point. Hospitalization. Doctors. Medications. Mental health treatment is a long road, and conservatorships and long-term care are never the first choices. But when mental health issues are so severe that individuals are unable to hold down a job or follow an educational path and have difficulty with basic daily living activities, they can be the best options.

What Is a Mental Health Conservatorship?

Before you can determine what’s best for your loved one, though, it’s important to understand conservatorships and just how they work.

“A mental health (LPS) conservatorship makes one adult (called the conservator) responsible for a mentally ill adult (called the conservatee),” according to the Superior Court of California. It’s important to note that these conservatorships are only for adults with mental illnesses listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

The most common illnesses covered by a conservatorship include serious, biological brain disorders like:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Schizoaffective Disorder
  • Clinical Depression
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

LPS conservatorships (named for the California legislators who wrote the LPS Act in the 1970s, Lanterman, Petris, and Short) are not for people with organic brain disorders, brain trauma, retardation, alcohol or drug addiction, or dementia, unless they also have one of the serious brain disorders listed in the DSM.

How Does a Conservatorship Work?

An LPS conservatorship gives legal authority to one adult to make certain decisions for a seriously mentally ill person who is unable to take care of him or herself. The Court may give an LPS conservator the duty not just to take care of and protect the seriously mentally ill person, but also grant them the power to handle the financial matters on behalf of the seriously mentally ill person.

Some actions a conservator can take on behalf of their mentally ill conservatee:

  • Give consent to mental health treatment, even if the conservatee objects
  • Legally agree to the use of psychotropic drugs
  • Agree to place the mentally ill person in a locked facility, if deemed necessary or appropriate by a psychiatrist
  • Determine where the mentally ill person will live when not in a residential facility

Of course, to make these decisions, a conservator needs to have enough medical and social information to understand what is best for their loved one. Making the decision to place a loved in a long-term residential program can be a tough decision, and while not all conservatees require a locked facility, conservatorships are often established because a person’s symptoms become so severe that they interfere with their self-care and safety.

Establishing a Conservatorship

The Superior Court of California will not let you establish an LPS conservatorship unless it finds beyond a reasonable doubt, that the mentally ill person is gravely disabled. But how is that determined and just what constitutes “gravely disabled”? This isn’t a decision you can make. A psychiatrist authorized to do LPS evaluations makes that determination and issues a referral to the Office of the Public Guardian. Criteria for being found gravely disabled includes when, because of a mental disorder, a person cannot take care of his or her basic, personal needs for food, clothing, or shelter.

If the mentally ill person refuses to go to a psychiatrist, you can request help from county officials to get an involuntary evaluation. This can often be done through a county’s Mental Health Access Program. You can also look for public service mental health facilities online by searching for “County Government Offices, Mental Health.”

County officials act as a temporary conservator until the Court decides on your petition. This temporary conservatorship usually lasts for a period of 30 days. During this period, county mental health staff will continue to investigate the disability of your loved one. They will also protect and care for the mentally ill person and his or her finances. Before the 30 days end, a report will be filed with the Court declaring the mentally ill person is gravely disabled (if they have met the criteria) and naming the person they feel is best to become conservator.

I’m a Conservator, Now What?

If the Court decides to establish a conservatorship, the judge will give an order appointing a conservator. Once the paperwork is signed and filed, the conservator has the authority to act. Now that it’s official, what should be your next steps? Make duplicates or ask for certified copies of the paperwork so you can prove what powers you legally have. Also, it’s important to know that conservatorships are often for a limited time. In California, they only last for one year, and it is your responsibility to keep track of the dates and to renew the conservatorship on time.

The Financial Side of Conservatorship

Your primary duty as conservator is to find the appropriate care and treatment for your ward, but there may be financial duties as well. Checking accounts, savings accounts, and certificates of deposit should be in your name as guardian or conservator, and all of your ward’s funds must be kept separate and apart from your own. Complete and accurate records must be kept of all money or other assets received and disbursed by you as guardian or conservator. In this case, a running list of receipts and expenses may be helpful because you will be required annually to file an accounting showing of all expenditures for the preceding year.

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When and How to Intervene

A mental health conservatorship is a big step and isn’t always necessary. If a friend or relative is acting strangely, you may be worried, but you may not be able to take legal action. If mentally ill individuals do not want to be treated, you can’t force treatment unless they are deemed a danger to themselves or others, or if they are proven unable to take care of themselves.

That doesn’t mean you’re out of options, though. If your friend or relative is mentally ill and a danger to him/herself or to others, you can:

  • Try to convince them to go with you to an emergency psychiatric facility
  • If there is an emergency, call 911 or your local police department (most officers are trained to handle mental illness, so explain the problem when you call)

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental health illnesses and co-occurring disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.