Options to help someone with an impairment or disability

There are many options for assistance, both through the courts and other community services. If you're considering options through the courts, like a conservatorship, you must show that less restrictive options, like the ones listed below, would not work for your situation. Court options, however, have additional oversight and accountability, so if those are necessary to protect the individual, they may be more appropriate.

Options to help

There are many ways that a person, or others who love and support the person, can get the help they need. These are some common examples.

Supported decision-making is a process that allows people with disabilities or impairments to receive support from trusted people but maintains the ability to make their own decisions. The person with a disability chooses the people who support them, including family, friends, staff, or professionals.

The supporters agree to help the person with a disability understand, consider, and communicate decisions. Supporters also give the person the ability to make their own informed decisions. Supported decision-making does not involve the courts.

You can get additional information on SDM from:

A power of attorney (POA) agreement allows one person to name another person to make financial or other decisions on their behalf. A POA can be either “durable” or “springing.” 

  • A durable POA means the person who has been named to make financial or legal decisions will be able to continue to do so as long as the POA exists.
  • A springing POA comes into effect when something occurs, such as a determination of incapacity.

A POA can be “limited” such that the powers only apply for a particular decision and don’t carry over to other parts of the person’s life. A POA agreement can be changed or terminated by following the same procedures that were used to create it.

Get a standard POA and more information on POAs from the Sacramento County Public Library.

talking alert icon

A medical POA is called an Advanced Healthcare Care Directive. The next section discusses this type of POA.

An AHCD allows a person to name another individual to make health care decisions on their behalf. The person making an advanced health care directive can also determine ahead of time what type of medical treatment they would want if they are unable to express their preferences in the future. Directives are like instructions that document a person’s desires, allowing them to be followed if the person is unable to communicate or make decisions at a later time.

A person can also create a power of attorney for health care as part of an AHCD. The directives must be signed by the person with a disability and either notarized or signed by two witnesses who saw the individual sign or acknowledge the AHCD.

AHCDs can be changed or terminated by the person who made them. 

Get a standard, fillable Advanced Healthcare Directive from California's Office of the Attorney General. 

A representative payee is an individual or organization appointed by Social Security to manage a person’s Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. They must use the money in the best interest of the person, often called a “beneficiary.” They will receive the public benefits, ensure that all bills are paid, and provide the beneficiary with money for their personal needs.

Get information on the Representative Payee program from the Social Security Administration or Disability Rights California.

Special Needs Trusts (SNT)

A SNT is a way for a person with a disabilty to maintain eligibility for public benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income and Medi-Cal, even while having assets that would normally make them ineligible.

A SNT separates out money from the individual’s accounts to pay for certain expenses.

  • Money not in the SNT account can be used to pay for basic needs, like rent, food, or taxes.
  • Money in the SNT account is used to pay for other expenses, like equipment, internet, or housekeeping.

A SNT must be irrevocable, which means that it cannot be changed later.

The person or organization who administers the trust is called a “trustee.” The trustee must notify the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) at least 15 days prior to a hearing to create the trust.

Get more information about SNTs including a link to notify DHCS about the SNT

CalABLE Account

A person with a disability that started before age 26 and who also receives either SSI or SSDI can open a CalABLE account. An eligible person can save up to $100,000 in a CalABLE account without affecting their eligibility for other benefits. Withdrawal for qualified expenses, such as education, housing, and personal assistance is tax-free.

Get more information about or open a CalABLE account

A guardian ad litem, or "GAL," stands in the place of a person with a disability in a court case. A GAL is able to hire a lawyer and make decisions in a lawsuit for a plaintiff, defendant, petitioner, respondent, or other party who is unable to understand or make decisions in the case.

Compare the options

This chart outlines the differences between these alternatives and limited and general conservatorships. 

Differences in options and conservatorships
Option Area of Assistance Description Oversight
Supported Decision-Making All Person retains decision-making power with the assistance of trusted individuals  No automatic oversight
Power of Attorney Legal, financial Person retains decision-making power with the assistance of trusted individuals  No automatic oversight
Advanced Health Care Directive Health (including mental health) Plan memorializing person’s health care desires or designating an alternate decisionmaker  No automatic oversight
Representative Payee Financial Person or organization to handle individual’s benefits, pay bills for them  Limited oversight
Special Needs Trust or CalABLE account Financial Placement of funds into a specialized account that can be used to purchase qualified goods and services  Limited oversight
Guardian ad litem Legal Person who manages a noncriminal court case for a person who is not able to do that for themselves Automatic oversight
Limited conservatorship Varies A conservator makes decisions in specific areas where conservatee with a developmental disability is unable  Automatic oversight
General conservatorship All A conservator makes decisions generally, including medical, financial, etc., as outlined in the conservatorship papers  Automatic oversight

Resources to help you compare the options

The Center for Elders and the Courts has resources that may help you understand the different options. “Finding the Right Fit” is a training that discusses supported decision-making and other legal options. This is a national resource, so you may see some terms in it not used in California. For example, the website calls a conservatorship an adult guardianship.

Other places to get support

A person with a disability or impairment or their loved ones may be entitled to support from several sources. Get more information about services at Regional Centers, Supported Living Services, and Schools.

Other places to get support

success alert banner:

Have a question about Conservatorship?

Look for a "Chat Now" button in the right bottom corner of your screen. If you don’t see it, disable any pop-up/ad blockers on your browser.