Hollywood celebrities, specifically Britney Spears, have brought conservatorship into the spotlight. We’ve put together some information explaining conservatorship, why it is used, why a lawyer is involved and what’s the buzz around the #FreeBritney movement.
What Is a Conservatorship?
Similar to guardianship, conservatorship is a legal status where a court appoints a person to manage an individual’s affairs. The individual under a conservatorship may be a minor, incapacitated, or incompetent due to various reasons, including health, age and mental capacity. In many cases of aging adults with dementia or other age-related disorders, these aging seniors may need to be placed under conservatorships.
Why Is a Conservatorship Necessary?
Some conservatorships may only cover an individual’s physical care and living arrangement, while others may also cover a financial role, being responsible for the individual’s finances. In the case of Britney Spears, it is reported that her father previously had control over her physical care, living arrangements and finances.
In 2008 due to mental health concerns, a probate conservatorship was established for Spears, which placed her father, Jamie Spears, as conservator, meaning he was in control of her person and her estate. This conservatorship estimated the singer’s estate of approximately $60 million. Her father also had the legal power to negotiate business opportunities and other financial matters.
In 2019, Jodi Montogomery was appointed as temporary conservator over Spears’ personal matters. Observers believe this was due to Mr. Spears’ health concerns. During this time, Spears began to raise attention by publicly speaking out against having her father as conservator of her estate. In December 2020, Montogomery’s role as conservator was extended to September 2021. Bessemer Trust was also added as a co-conservator.
After 13 years of being his daughter’s financial conservator, Mr. Spears filed a document with Los Angeles Superior Court in August, agreeing to step down as his daughter’s conservator. “Mr. Spears is willing to step down when the time is right, but the transition needs to be orderly and include a resolution of matters pending before the court,” the filing shared.
A Lawyer’s Role in a Conservatorship
A conservatorship is not entered into lightly. A person can only be placed in a conservatorship if they are unable to provide for basic needs, like shelter, clothing and food, incapable of making medical decisions or unable to manage their financial affairs.
If someone is concerned about an individual’s welfare and ability to manage their own affairs, there are legal options available. Many people will contact an estate planning lawyer to establish Powers of Attorney and Living Wills as part of advanced medical and financial planning as part of the life planning process.
In order to establish a conservatorship, a relative, public official or friend will need to petition the court. The petition must contain details covering why the individual cannot manage their financial affairs or make sound decisions. After the petition is filed, a court investigator will interview the individual in question. This interview will help the court determine whether the appointment of a conservator is justified. The court investigator will report back to the court with an opinion regarding the individual.
Once a court investigator has provided their opinion to the court, a petition is set. If possible, the potential conservatee should appear in court. Based on the petition, the investigator’s report and any evidence provided, the judge will issue a ruling on whether a conservatorship is required. At this point, if a conservatorship is necessary, the judge will specify the types of responsibilities that the conservator will be assigned. Even after the judge has determined whether the conservatorship is necessary or not, the court investigator will continue to visit and monitor the conservatee. This is because circumstances may change.
Legal representation is necessary throughout the conservatorship process. From raising a concern about an individual to petitioning the court and determining the outcome, an attorney with expertise in establishing conservatorships will ensure a smoother process. This can help reduce stress and anxiety at navigating a complicated legal avenue. Should a conservatorship be necessary, an attorney could also be appointed as a conservator.
What Is the #FreeBritney Movement?
As conservatorships were thrust into the public eye when Spears was placed under one in 2008, the #FreeBritney movement began. In the beginning, this movement was a collection of fans who wanted Spears to be free from the confines of a conservatorship. As time marched on, the #FreeBritney movement gained momentum. After the release of “Framing Britney Spears,” a documentary from FX and The New York Times, the movement grew, with many wondering why Spears continues to be subject to a conservatorship.
By raising the concerns of conservatorships, the #FreeBritney movement has prompted two U.S. House representatives to propose a bill known as the Freedom and Right Emancipation from Exploitation Act (FREE Act). This act would allow those under guardianship the right to petition the court to have their private conservator or guardian replaced with a public one. Disability advocates applaud the bill but acknowledge that even more reforms to conservatorships and guardianships are required.
Director of the Centre for Estate Administration Reform Rick Black shared this with NPR about the #Free Britney movement, “I see very real potential with the visibility that they’re bringing to the issue. Not only for Britney, but for future and current victims that don’t have a face, don’t have a voice, would never be known.”
As court dates for Spears and her legal team are scheduled for September, further speculation will continue to draw attention to those under conservatorships and guardianships across the country.