SAN JOSE -- Meredith Probst is 17, but she can't dress herself, make lunch or take a bath alone. The developmentally disabled San Jose resident counts on her stay-at-home dad for all that and more -- including what school to attend and how to treat her seizures.

But under California law, her father Dave Probst will lose parental rights over Meredith when she turns 18. To keep them, he and other special needs parents must enter what they feel is a legal hell.

They have to fill out more than 12 complex forms. File a petition for limited conservatorship. Serve a long list of relatives with legal papers -- twice. Show up in downtown San Jose for a probate court hearing. Or hire a lawyer to handle it for thousands of dollars.

But relatives of developmentally disabled people in Santa Clara County, regardless of their income, are the only ones in the state with another option -- free help from the local Superior Court.

Every month, lawyer Linda Vu painstakingly teaches a new group of families how to manage the task. She and a student intern walk them through more than 45 pages of forms, step by trying step.

"OK, we're on Page 1 of form GC-310," Vu said recently during the December workshop at Sobrato Center for Nonprofits in San Jose. "Make sure box 'g' is marked."

Dave Probst is grateful.

"To do it yourself would be absolutely overwhelming," the retired software engineer said. "You think, 'What's going to happen to your daughter at a certain age?' You need to do this legally."

The local bench is known statewide for its progressive programs. "We saw a need and figured out how we could help," court spokesman Joe Macaluso said.

Trudy Marsh Grable, a director at the nonprofit Parents Helping Parents who helps coordinate the workshops, also praised the court for offering them.

One reason the limited conservatorship process is so complicated is that the courts don't take removing a disabled person's rights lightly. Conservators wind up with power over where the disabled adult lives and their medical treatment. They also have access to the adult's confidential records and can sign contracts on their behalf.

For the disabled adult to qualify for conservatorship, the "conservatee" must have an IQ less than 70, an autism diagnosis or other conditions such as cerebral palsy or epilepsy.

Statewide, some 275,000 people, or less than 1 percent of California residents, are developmentally disabled. Because most counties don't offer free help with the conservatorship process, families from around the state are beginning to turn to San Jose for help.

Zhanna Tishchenko got up at 5:30 a.m. and drove all the way down from Sacramento to the recent workshop. Her 25-year-old twin sister Oksana has a severe form of cerebral palsy. Oksana has been an adult legally for eight years, but her father and mother were too intimidated by the massive paperwork to apply, Zhanna said. She and her parents will share the conservatorship.

"They don't have this kind of help in other counties," she said.

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.