By MADISON HIRNEISEN
THE CENTER SQUARE STAFF REPORTER
(The Center Square) — For Californians living under a probate conservatorship, the legal arrangement can be difficult to terminate.
A bill on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk aims to change that.
Among the hundreds of bills passed in the final weeks of the legislative session that are now awaiting the governor’s signature is Assembly Bill 1663. Gov. Newsom has until Sept. 30 to sign it.
Passed by lawmakers in the waning days of the legislative session, the bill would revise several procedures in California’s conservatorship process.
In California, a person or entity can petition a court for a conservatorship – a legal arrangement where someone is appointed to make decisions for another adult deemed unable to take care of their own needs or finances. If a conservatorship is granted, the court decides which decision-making powers are taken away from a conservatee, giving a conservator the right to make decisions about the conservatee’s medical decisions, finances or even who they can marry.
Conservatorships are supposed to be a last resort under California law, only granted if it’s the “least restrictive” option on the table.
Once a conservatorship is granted, it can be very challenging for conservatees to get out of the arrangement. As showcased in pop star Britney Spears’ months-long battle to terminate her probate conservatorship, getting out of the arrangement is a lengthy process involving paperwork and legal hearings.
If AB 1663 is signed into law, that could soon change.
One of the major provisions in the bill makes it easier for someone to terminate a conservatorship by requiring court investigators to discuss “less restrictive alternatives” during annual visits with a conservatee. The court investigator would be required to report whether a conservatee is interested in modifying or terminating their conservatorship, and if they are, a court must “promptly consider” ending or modifying the arrangement.
Under the bill, courts must appoint counsel and set a termination hearing if a conservatee wants to exit the arrangement. Additionally, if a petition to terminate a conservatorship is uncontested, meaning both the conservator and conservatee agree that conservatorship is no longer the “least restrictive alternative,” the court can terminate the conservatorship without a hearing.
Supporters of the legislation say terminating conservatorship would be made much easier for individuals who wish to do so. Still, bill sponsors remain skeptical about whether this will lead to a drastic rise in the number of people moving to end their conservatorship.
Disability Voices United President Judy Mark, whose orgnization co-sponsored the bill, is doubtful that the legislation will result in “significant numbers” of people exiting conservatorships because they may not know they will have this right. She’s ultimately hopeful the legislation will prevent more people from being placed under a conservatorship at the outset.
“For those individuals who really want to get out of their conservatorship, I really think this is going to be very helpful,” Ms. Mark told The Center Square. “Where we will see a much bigger impact is far fewer people ending up in a conservatorship in the first place.”
California has two primary types of conservatorships – probate conservatorships and Lanterman-Petris-Short conservatorships.
Probate conservatorships are for all adults who are unable to provide for their personal needs due to injury, dementia or other reasons. LPS conservatorships are reserved for someone “gravely disabled” due to a mental disorder that could be a danger to themselves or others. LPS conservatorships are usually temporary, while probate conservatorships can be more indefinite.
Limited conservatorships are a type of probate conservatorship that is reserved for individuals who are developmentally disabled and are intended to limit the powers of a conservator so that disabled individuals can live as independently as possible.
Another key provision in AB 1663 is supported decision-making – a process where a person with a disability chooses a set of trusted advisors to help them make decisions. AB 1663 would codify supported decision-making as a “less restrictive alternative” to conservatorship that a court must consider.
Supporters say that by establishing supported decision-making as a less restrictive alternative, more disabled people could avoid probate conservatorships in the first place. The governor recently signed budget trailer legislation that would allocate $5 million to the State Council on Developmental Disabilities to administer technical assistance and training around supported decision-making.
If AB 1663 is signed into law, California will join 16 states and the District of Columbia that already have laws that support decision-making, according to Disability Voices United. Ms. Mark said Disability Voices United and other advocates are “optimistic” Gov. Newsom will sign what could be “one of the most comprehensive expansive conservatorship bills in the country.”
Madison Hirneisen covers California for The Center Square.