By Rachel Puryear, B-law-gger
If you have followed celebrity news over the years at all, you likely have noted that pop star Britney Spears was placed under the conservatorship of her father, Jamie Spears, over a decade ago. Recently, Britney Spears has revealed more to the public about what is happening, than she has in the past – and a disturbing tale is emerging. #FreeBritney has generated a great deal of public attention to a problem that has badly needed attention – questionable (and sometimes outright abusive) conservatorships.
What is a conservatorship? A conservatorship is where an incapacitated adult – the conservatee – is placed under legal control of another adult – a conservator – by a court order. The conservator may be granted control over the conservatee’s finances, health care decisions, and other life decisions. It is similar to having custody of a child, but instead involves a ward who is an adult. Conservatorships are supposed to be for adults who are unable to make decisions for or care for themselves; due to factors like extreme age, dementia, or severe physical or mental health illnesses or disabilities. As with custody of children, a judge oversees a conservatorship.
The nature of conservatorship proceedings (as is also the case with child custody proceedings) is such that there is a lot of privacy and confidentiality surrounding them. There are good reasons for this, as conservatorship proceedings necessitate discussing the conservatee’s (or would-be’s) sensitive health and medical information. (And in the case of child custody, sensitive information about family dynamics, and about involved minors themselves.) However, the downside to the lack of a more transparent public record like you have in most other types of court proceedings can also make it more difficult for the public to accurately track outcomes and trends in these types of proceedings.
Nevertheless, as Britney Spears has recently opened up to the public about her side of her ordeal, this has generated a lot of commentary all around – in circles of legal professionals and other experts, in everyday people voicing strong opinions on the matter and sharing their own personal stories, and also in my own personal and professional circle.
Several friends, colleagues, and others in my social circles have been sharing their own stories and frustrations with guardianship and conservatorship matters in the legal system. A common theme emerges, where proposed wards met dismissive attitudes from judges, and lost control of their lives based upon dubious claims.
Someone very dear to me and my spouse has been going through a nightmarish guardianship situation since last year. Rather than money being the motive, though, the motive in this instance was to take away this person’s children, for the guardian to keep. We have of course been attempting to remove the guardianship since the beginning, but as is so often the case, the legal system we are dealing with favors the wrong side. We have not spoken about this nightmare to many, but I share it now, as there is intensifying attention on such matters thanks to Britney Spears opening up more about her own nightmare.
The 2020 film I Care A Lot portrayed a con artist who poses as a professional conservator. The main character abuses loopholes in the legal system in order to gain conservatorship of elderly people in bad faith, and then uses her position to take their money over their objections, in order to enrich herself. While the movie tells a fictional story, it is inspired by events which can and have happened in real life, many times. If you believe that things like this cannot really happen – yes, they can. More than we all want to think.
The California Child Actor’s Bill of 1939 was enacted to protect the earnings of young entertainers, until they reached the age of majority (though parents were allowed to keep a portion, reflecting their contributions to the child’s career development). This law was designed to prevent child actors from having their money spent by adults before they could manage it for themselves – and this has happened to several prominent child actors since then. While this law applies only to the protections of earnings of minors, it does reflect that many stars (especially while young) are vulnerable to those around them coming after their fortunes.
Hopefully, Britney Spears’ going public about what is happening to her will draw more attention to matters like these – and increase public scrutiny on sketchy and abusive conservatorships. I practiced law for a decade, and I can assure you that without a doubt, the legal system so often comes down on the wrong side. Courts create injustice all the time. Judges often are not good judges of character at best, and what’s even worse is that they have all the same prejudices as the rest of society does. Having your fate in the hands of a judge, is a crapshoot at best.
So, what can people do to protect themselves against such a situation, especially where they might be vulnerable (such as, having money or children or something else that people around them might consider worth taking)?
If you do not already have one, make sure that you have an advance health care directive and power of attorney in place. Your health care provider can give you one at no charge. Among other things, it allows you to choose who you want to make decisions for you and manage your affairs in the event that you ever become incapacitated and cannot express your own wishes. Having this is beneficial regardless of your age and current medical status, as unfortunate things can suddenly happen to young, healthy people. Having this directive, of course, does not guarantee that a wrongful and abusive conservatorship could never happen to you – but it might help your chances by indicating in advance who you would want acting on your behalf if necessary.
Furthermore – and this is often the tougher one – just be very careful of who you associate with. In the case of our loved one whose children were unjustly taken away, she kept people in her life over her better instincts, because she felt guilty cutting them out of her life – even though doing the latter sooner would have likely prevented this. No matter how many times mean and disdainful people claim to have changed for the better, listen to your instincts and follow them – even if it means far away from this person. There is no legal advice or tactic in the world that can prevent more harm to a person, than being discerning about who you associate with, and listening to your gut about other people around you.
Thank you, dear readers, for reading, sharing and following. Here’s to your thriving and prospering – and to your freedom and autonomy over your life, for the well-being of you as well as those you love.