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Conservatorship and Estate Planning in New Jersey

Under New Jersey state law, if a person with assets isn’t capable of making viable financial decisions, the court can appoint a third person as a conservator. This process is set out at length in New Jersey Court Rule 4:86-11. If you have minor children, an important part of your estate planning may involve consulting with an experienced estate planning litigation lawyer who can help you nominate a conservator to care for your children’s best financial interests in the event of your untimely death.

What’s the Difference Between a Guardian and a Conservator?

A guardian is an individual the court empowers to make what can be termed lifestyle decisions. Thus, a guardian may make decisions about health care, legal affairs, residences, employment and the like for the person on whose behalf he or she has been appointed to act.

A conservator, on the other hand, has a far narrower scope. A conservator is appointed by the court solely to oversee another person’s finances when that person, either through age or incapacity, cannot look after his or her own finances.

Guardians can handle small amounts of money such as monthly stipends, Social Security checks and Veterans Administration benefits. If these payments amount to more than $24,000 annually, however, the court will usually appoint a conservator as well as a guardian.

In the case of a minor child, it may be necessary for a court to appoint both a guardian and a conservator. If a New Jersey court finds it appropriate, the guardian and the conservator can be the same person, but the court also has the discretion to appoint two different people to fill these roles.

When might it be appropriate to appoint a separate guardian and a separate conservator? Consider the case of divorced parents of a minor child. If one of the parents dies, under most circumstances, it will be appropriate for the surviving parent to assume full guardianship. However, if the deceased parent left a large estate to the minor child, he or she may not have wanted a former spouse to have control over that estate and may set up a conservatorship as part of estate planning.

Who Qualifies to Become a Conservator?

Guardians are often related by blood to the individuals they take on as wards. Typically, though not always, a guardian will be a parent, a spouse, a child or a sibling. Sometimes, guardianship will be given to an individual such as a lawyer, a private organization or a state agency such as the New Jersey Bureau of Guardianship Services.

Though a conservator can also be a family member, conservators are just as likely to be professionals such as lawyers or associates with financial firms.

What Are the Duties of a Conservator?

A conservator owes a fiduciary duty to the individual whose finances he or she is overseeing. That means the conservator is legally obligated to act in that individual’s best interests without conflicts of interest, and if that duty is breached, legal actions can be taken against the conservator.

Conservators are responsible for making any payments necessary for a conservatee’s support, maintenance and education. A conservator is responsible for paying any legal debts the conservatee accrues and for paying taxes associated with the conservatee’s assets. The conservator will make all the important decisions regarding which of the conservatee’s assets should be bought, held or sold. He or she will also retain close contact with the managers of the financial institutions in which the conservatee’s assets are held.

Conservators have many responsibilities under New Jersey state law. If you are in possession of an appropriately sized estate, it is certainly a good idea to discuss conservatorship with an experienced estate planning litigation lawyer should you have minor children or be planning to leave part of your estate to someone who may be incapacitated. The Knee Law Firm in Hackensack, New Jersey, has more than 60 years of combined legal experience in setting up conservatorships and providing other services related to estate planning. Contact us today at (201) 996-1200 to schedule an appointment.

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