What happens when a young woman, brain-damaged and memory-impaired as a result of drug abuse and alcoholism, inherits a large sum of money and falls under the influence of a man who seems more interested in her money than caring for her?

If she is lucky, a concerned aunt goes to court, seeking a conservatorship. A recent ruling in just such a case by the California Court of Appeal has important consequences for anyone who may want to safeguard a loved one suffering from mental illness, dementia or other ailments, against the influence of an abusive or neglectful companion or hanger-on.

The young woman, identified in court filings only as B.C., abused alcohol and methamphetamine to the point that she overdosed in 2012, starving her brain of oxygen and leaving her, at age 30, with physical and mental impairments.

A psychologist who evaluated B.C. two years later found that she was capable of basic tasks such as showering, brushing her teeth and preparing a simple meal. But she was incapable of making medical decisions for herself because she “doesn’t have the memory to remember from one moment to the next, much less one day to the next.”

That made B.C. “vulnerable to fraud from people she trusts,” the psychologist noted.

Unfortunately for the young woman, her companion, Jesse, seemed unwilling or unable to provide the care she needed. He too was addicted to methamphetamine.

Jesse declined to hire speech and occupational therapists recommended for B.C. because he felt they were too expensive and “might not even work.” He did not pursue treatment for her at a brain injury center, and admitted that he sometimes failed to take her to medical appointments.

In 2014 the young woman’s mother died, leaving her a $450,000 inheritance. B.C. and Jesse then married. In court, Jesse acknowledged taking $14,000 in disability benefits B.C. had received and spending the money on travel, jewelry and new clothing for himself.

The young woman’s aunt, C.S., petitioned for appointment as a probate conservator in April of 2014, on the grounds that B.C. was unable to work, manage her money or care for her physical health, and was susceptible to undue influence because of her brain injuries.

B.C. and Jesse opposed the petition. They were represented at first by a private attorney, who demanded a jury trial. That attorney was later replaced by a member of the Ventura County Public Defender’s office, who did not repeat the request for a jury trial.

The trial court determined that appointing C.S. as conservator for B.C. was the least restrictive way to provide B.C. with the needed protection. It observed that Jesse, who by then had spent $30,000 of her funds, “doesn’t have the capability to be a decision maker with his wife.”

The appellate court was asked to overturn the conservatorship because B.C. was not granted a jury trial. Her attorney argued that the trial judge should have advised B.C. of a right to a jury trial or asked her to waive that right.

The appellate court ruled in favor of C.S., the young woman’s aunt.

It noted that the case involved a fairly unrestrictive probate conservatorship. The Probate Code authorizes appointment of a “conservatorship of the person” if he or she cannot provide for basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and health, manage financial resources, or resist fraud or undue influence.

The higher court pointed out that in a different kind of conservatorship, governed by the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (LPS Act), the trial court must hold a jury trial or obtain a personal waiver of a jury trial even if the conservatee does not ask for one.

That requirement exists, the appellate court noted, because individuals subject to an LPS Act hearing are “severely mentally ill persons” who face “a substantial loss of personal freedom” if the conservatorship is granted.

A probate conservatorship poses no threat of confinement, and therefore does not require a personal waiver of the right to a jury trial.

The appellate court held that the opposition by B.C. to the conservatorship sought by C.S. was properly litigated under the terms of the Probate Code. Because B.C. is unable to care for her own health needs and Jesse cannot be trusted to do so, it said, the conservatorship was proper.

For those struggling with the need to protect loved ones who are incapable of caring for themselves and may be at risk of being victimized by others, the ruling in “Conservatorship of the Person of B.C.” offers important legal support.