Conservatorship may have been the cause of Adam Lanza's rampage

Connecticut conservatorship records may hold the key to the gunman's motive in the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.

Adam Lanza, 20, first killed his mother before targeting the Newtown school. According to neighbor Joshua Flashman, 25, he could have been set off by the knowledge that his mother had petitioned the court for a conservatorship.

"Adam was apparently very upset about this. He thought she just wanted to send him away. From what I understand, he was really, really angry. I think this could have been it, what set him off," Flashman told Fox News.

A conservatorship is a legal process that allows the court to appoint a decision-maker for people who are incapable of handling their own personal or financial affairs.

A conservatorship is not the same thing as committing someone to a mental hospital or other facility for psychiatric treatment. While a conservator can make some medical decisions, a conservator in Connecticut cannot commit a mentally ill person for psychiatric treatment. Generally the conservator oversees mundane tasks, such as paying bills or managing Social Security benefits.

If Nancy Lanza indeed applied for a conservatorship for her son, the conservatorship would not allow her to involuntarily commit him. Connecticut conservatorship applications are kept under seal and are not available to the public.

For Adam Lanza to be involuntarily committed to psychiatric care, Nancy Lanza would have had to seek a commitment order from the court, which is a different process altogether.

After filing a petition for a commitment order, two court-appointed physicians would examine the prospective patient and make a recommendation to the court. A formal hearing would be held to decide whether the patient was gravely disabled or a danger to himself or others. The court would also determine whether the patient should be held for the duration of his mental disability or for a pre-arranged amount of time.

Involuntary commitment can also arise in an emergency situation, when it becomes apparent to police, social workers or health care professionals that an individual is a danger to himself or others. A temporary psychiatric hold is then imposed and the individual is usually free to go after an observation period of 72 hours.

On the other hand, a applying for a conservatorship is quite different. In that case, the court reviews the application and determines whether the person has a mental, emotional or physical condition that prohibits him from managing his own affairs. Information like medical history or a previous example of mismanagement can be enough to show the court the conservatorship is necessary.

Courts often appoint family members as conservators, since they are thought to have the best access to the person who needs help, but a conservator can be any concerned individual or even a group who can be trusted to make decisions that reflect the views, opinions and best interests of the incapacitated person.

Conservators can make medical decisions in conjunction with a physician, including decisions about psychotropic medications. Big financial decisions such as buying or selling property must be reviewed by the court.

Kelly Sheahen Gerner, Wild About Trial

Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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