When an adult permanently loses or does not have the ability to care for themselves, there are two legal provisions available that can grant others the right to care for them. These are the roles of guardian and conservator. You may have heard these terms before, but let’s explore the difference between guardian and conservator responsibilities.


Let’s start with guardianship. When someone takes on the role of guardian, they are responsible to physically care for another person. By law, they are accountable to act in the best interest of that person. Guardianship is only granted in specific cases of disability or incapacity where it is likely or certain that a person will never function well enough to care for themselves.

A guardian is different from a medical agent, who is someone a person appoints for themselves to step in and act on their behalf during a medical crisis or temporary loss of capacity. No one can appoint a guardian for themselves, and it is usually not a short-term role. Only a judge has the authority to appoint a guardian when it becomes clear a person cannot make their own decisions.

There is also a difference between an adult guardian and a minor’s guardian, as a minor’s guardian is a role that is only applicable until a child reaches the age of 18. At that point, the law considers them an adult and their guardian no longer has the right to act for them.

[Related: 3 Tips to Choosing a Guardian for Your Minor Child]


While a guardian is responsible for a person’s physical care and daily nurturing, a conservator is tasked with handling their finances. They may have minimal contact with the person themselves but are legally bound to make the best possible financial decisions for that person.

A conservator is different from a power of attorney for the same reasons a guardian is different than a medical agent—both powers of attorney and medical agents are appointed to make temporary financial and medical decisions, respectively.

The Difference Between a Guardian and a Conservator

It is understandable that there is confusion around the two roles, as they become necessary at the same time and are often talked about in tandem. But knowing the difference between a guardian and a conservator is crucial if you are being considered for one of the roles or if you have a special needs or disabled loved one who needs to be cared for in these ways.

[Related: If you have more detailed questions about guardians and conservators, you may find these videos by The Probate Nation helpful.]


Do you have more questions about guardians and conservators? Shoot me an email at Josh@relational.law – I’m happy to chat!


Joshua E. Hummer, Esq. is a licensed attorney who has been admitted in both Virginia and West Virginia. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and has been practicing for over 15 years. While experienced in many parts of the law, Josh specializes in estate planning, estate administration, and elder law.

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