Autism Spectrum and Conservatorship

P is a person with autism spectrum disorder. She is an adult, but her mother [M] was concerned that she could not care for herself. M petitioned the court to be P’s guardian along with P’s older sister [S} in an action known as conservatorship. This proceeding allows the court to appoint someone (the conservator) to manage the financial and daily needs for someone incapable of providing for him or herself. (This person is known as the conservatee.) Autism spectrum disorder is “…characterized by persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, including deficits in social reciprocity, nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, and skills in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships. In addition to the social communication deficits, the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder requires the presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.” (American Psychiatric Assn., Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed. 2013) p. 31.) (Emphasis added.)

M filed her conservatorship petition in 2017. At that time, P was eighteen years old and living with her 82-year-old great grandmother in Santa Barbara County. P had lived with her great-grandmother since she was four years old. M lived in Orange County. P was in the process of repeating the 12th grade.

At the hearing Dr. K testified for P as an expert witness. She stated that she did not think P needed a conservator, because P was able to communicate and function within society. Dr. K thought P should be allowed to live independently with support. An investigator with the Santa Barbara County Public Guardian’s Office also testified. He said that he interviewed P, and that she didn’t want a conservator, but to continue living with her great grandmother. The investigator agreed with Dr. K stating P did not need a conservatorship.

M argued that although P had lived with her great grandmother for 14 years, M had daily contact with P. P needed protection. She had missed 322 days of this school year alone and that she would need more protection as she became an adult. M also stated that she would put P in a special education program in Orange County. Her current school did not provide for her special needs. She further stated that P could not dress herself without help, nor even operate a shower faucet without help. She can’t cook, and she screams and yells at everyone all the time because she is frustrated.

The trial court agreed with M that P was unable to care for herself, and ordered a limited conservatorship. The court noted: “A limited conservator of the person . . . may be appointed for a developmentally disabled adult. A limited conservatorship may be utilized only as necessary to promote and protect the well-being of the individual, shall be designed to encourage the development of maximum self-reliance and independence of the individual, and shall be ordered only to the extent necessitated by the individual's proven mental and adaptive limitations. The conservatee of the limited conservator shall not be presumed to be incompetent and shall retain all legal and civil rights except those which by court order have been designated as legal disabilities and have been specifically granted to the limited conservator.” P appealed.

The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court that there was sufficient evidence to order a limited conservatorship.

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