A guardian is a person who is appointed by a court to be legally responsible for the care and custody of a minor (or of an adult person who has been legally determined to be incapacitated) when the minor parent(s) is absent, deceased or otherwise unable to fulfill those legal duties. In addition to the legal responsibility for the care of the minor, the court must also consider the management of the minor’s property. Generally, when a guardian of the minor’s person is appointed, the court will also appoint a guardian of the minor’s estate — in many jurisdictions, this is called the conservator.
The same person is usually appointed both guardian and conservator, although it is possible for different persons to be appointed. If a minor receives an inheritance, a personal injury settlement, a life insurance payout, government benefits or other payments, an adult must be appointed to manage the funds. (If the minor’s parents are alive and have custody of the minor, they have authority in most states to manage those assets as parents and without special appointment by the court.)
In determining a conservator, the court may consider a person named in the will of the last parent to die, the wishes of a living but temporarily unfit parent and even the wishes of the child (if of appropriate age). The court is not bound by the parents’ choice or the child’s choice though. It must appoint an adult who is suitable, qualified and willing to serve.
A conservator is responsible for the protection and management of the minor’s financial estate. The conservator must be prudent in investing and spending the minor’s assets, using only those assets necessary for the minor’s care. He or she must also account for all funds received and/or expended on behalf of the minor.
The court maintains supervisory authority over the conservator and will require court order for any substantial expenditures. There is generally a regular accounting requirement imposed by law and by the court in order to keep a close eye on the management of the minor’s assets.
A conservator is not personally liable for any debts of the minor as long as the conservator always makes it very clear that he or she is acting as a legal representative of the minor. Unauthorized use or misappropriation of the minor’s estate by the conservator may result in personal liability to the estate for any loss.
Conservatorships for minors terminate when the minor reaches the age of majority. The court generally requires the conservator to prepare and present a final accounting of the administration of the minor’s estate. Upon the court’s approval of the final accounting, the conservator transfers the estate to the former minor. The court then issues a final receipt and the conservator is discharged from any further legal duty.