It seems to me that recently I have been inundated with questions about conservatorship in California. In the Bay Area, much like the rest of California and the United States, there are a large number of aging Americans, including the Baby Boomers, who are getting into their 60s and older. But most of these inquiries have a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what a conservator is, when it is possible or appropriate to get, why it’s necessary, who can file for one, and what the general process is.
So, let’s start with the basics. As we age, many of us will gradually slow down. Perhaps this starts with using the stairs in our house less frequently, and maybe progresses to driving less at night. Our muscles become weaker, our senses a little duller. We may get a hearing aid for when we’re out in public. These are all normal ‘symptoms’ of aging. As we continue to get older, some of us may have cognitive, or mental, decline as well. This is more than just forgetting where you’ve put your glasses or keys.
At some point, for some of us as we age, we become no longer able to take care of our own finances and our own health. We can’t pay the bills, remember to take our medication, or even maintain basic hygiene. Adult children can spot these issues when they see unpaid or overdue bills lying around the house. Perhaps a caregiver is noticing and reporting the concerns about hygiene or unusual behavior. Maybe you are talking to an assisted living community about moving your parent in, and they are concerned about your parent’s mental capacity.
Based on your concerns, you may wish to be the one who makes the financial and medical decisions on behalf of your parent. It may, in fact, be necessary because your loved one has signs of dementia, paranoia or hostility that make them completely unable to care for their own needs.
If you and your loved one have acted in advance, then you may have a power of attorney that will allow you to make the necessary decisions. In California, there are two kinds of powers of attorney: one for finances and one for medical care. An individual who signs a power of attorney must be competent to do so, so if you are in a situation where your loved ones is already mentally compromised, or refuses to cooperate to sign one, then a power of attorney is not an option for you.
This is another reason why advance planning is so critical. If you wait too long and are unable to get your loved one to sign a power of attorney, then you will need to go through the court process of a conservatorship to obtain decision-making power over your loved one’s finances, medical decisions, or both. Next time we will talk about the conservatorship process.