Sunday, July 11, 2021

Analyzing Britney Spears' Conservatorship: How Should Courts Respond to Allegations of a Toxic Guardianship?

This summer, J. Collin Fulton, a rising 2L student at Dickinson Law, with a prelaw background in journalism, has been doing a fantastic job while working on projects with me.  He put together this very thoughtful overview of how Britney Spears' concerns, arising in the context of the California-based proceeding, may be relevant to the larger analysis of guardianships and conservatorships across the nation.  

Joshua Collin Fulton 2021From J. Collin Fulton:

In the areas of guardianship and conservatorship law, perhaps no recent case has captured the attention of the American public as thoroughly as the conservatorship of Britney Spears. The Pop singer’s conservatorship was established in California in 2008 and has become one of the best-known examples of how, under U.S. law, a person can have the management of both their personal life and financial affairs placed under the control of a court-appointed guardian/conservator, typically as a result of mental or physical conditions or advanced age.

While a legion of Ms. Spears’ fans has routinely called into question both the necessity and nature of the singer’s conservatorship, it was the release of the New York Times' 2019 documentary “Framing Britney Spears” which brought the details of Ms. Spears conservatorship to the attention of the broader public. I personally became aware following the Times’ publication on June 22nd of an article detailing how Ms. Spears herself feels about the conservatorship. Based on court records acquired by the NYTimes, the article details both Ms. Spears opposition to the continuance of her conservatorship in its present form as well as Ms. Spears claims concerning some of the effects the conservatorship has had on her life. Based on court documents going back to 2014, the NYTimes article reports that:

  • Spears “feels the conservatorship has become an oppressive and controlling tool against her.”
  • Spears has informed the court that, as a result of the conservatorship, she felt compelled to perform against her will and compelled to stay at a mental health facility against her will.
  • The conservatorship restricted a broad range of Ms. Spears decision making, ranging from who she was allowed to date to the manner in which she could decorate her home.

Ms. Spears’s June 23 public testimony further cast the conservatorship in a negative light. In the testimony, the singer claimed that, against her will, she was forced to take mood-altering drugs and forced onto contraception. Ms. Spears again called for her conservatorship to be ended and generally for the laws surrounding conservatorships to be changed. This call has been echoed by numerous other singers in support of Ms. Spears, including Justin Timberlake, Halsey, Brandy, and Mariah Carrey, as reported by the BBC.

Given what Ms. Spears claims has transpired as a result of her conservatorship and the public support she has received, I became deeply curious about how a conservatorship can actually be terminated. Given the complexity of guardianship/conservatorship laws, this is a question without a simple answer.

First, state laws vary significantly regarding who, how, and why a person can be placed under a guardianship/conservatorship. As Ms. Spears’s case takes place in California, I focus there.

There are two types of conservatorships under California law: Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) and Probate conservatorships, the latter of which is exemplified by Ms. Spears’s situation.

Such conservatorships are typically permanent affairs in California; however, they can be terminated in the following ways:

  • The conservatorship ends due to the death of the conservatee.
  • A judge may end the conservatorship upon petition to do so resulting from the conservatee regaining the ability to manage their own affairs (The argument Ms. Spears appears to be currently making).
  • A conservatorship of the estate can be ended if the conservatee ceases to possess any assets to protect.

Learning this raised a new question for me: why would a court allow a conservatorship such as Ms. Spears’s to continue given her allegations? I believe the answer to this question lies in the purpose of guardianship/conservatorship laws.

This purpose is perhaps best exemplified in the California “Handbook for Conservators,” which the state mandates for conservator cases. The Handbook has a clear message for every new conservator: “You have been appointed conservator because someone – your parent, spouse, child, or other relative or friend – needs help, and you are willing to lend a hand.” This simple message, in my opinion, captures the thought behind guardianship and conservatorship laws. There are, sadly, situations in which a person is unable to manage their affairs. Guardianships and conservatorships allow for a legal redress to such situations, enabling courts to appoint a trusted individual to provide assistance in such circumstances.

The California Handbook also highlights another important fact central to the functionality of conservatorships: “The position of conservator is one of great trust and responsibility. The court and conservatee are trusting you to follow the law and to act in the conservatee’s best interests.” Given the incredible responsibilities assumed by a guardian/conservator, it is indeed imperative that guardians/conservators execute their duties with the utmost understanding and respect for the individual's own values and goals, while also complying with the legal obligation to make decisions in the best interest of the individual they have been appointed to protect.

With the purpose of guardianships/conservatorships now understood, I turn back to Ms. Spears and the question of why, given her allegations, her conservatorship still remains. The answer is, simply, that legal process such as this take time.

Just as a court needed to consider a multitude of factors in determining that Ms. Spears should become a conservatee, the court must now perform proper inquiries into the allegations that Ms. Spears has raised and then determine an appropriate response to take based on the validity of these allegations. This is true not only for Ms. Spears, but for any person in a guardianship/conservatorship situation. Guardianships/conservatorships are serious affairs, ones in which a person’s ability to control their own lives have been taken from them and handed to another individual, hopefully one who is trustworthy and will act in their best interest. Should doubts emerge about the actions of a guardian/conservator, or indeed the necessity of an established guardianship/conservatorship itself, investigating the situation thoroughly is paramount to the integrity of not only the guardianship/conservatorship in question but also the legal system of guardianships/conservatorships at large.

Mr. Fulton concludes:  I thus believe that while a quick response from the court may satiate the immediate public outcry for change, a proper inquiry which establishes the truth and, in turn, enables the court to act based on the facts will not only improve Ms. Spears' situation but enhance public knowledge on the current state of guardianship/conservatorship laws in the United States.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/elder_law/2021/07/analyzing-britney-spears-conservatorship-how-should-courts-respond-to-allegations-of-a-toxic-guardia.html

Cognitive Impairment, Consumer Information, Current Affairs, Elder Abuse/Guardianship/Conservatorship, Estates and Trusts, Ethical Issues, State Cases, State Statutes/Regulations | Permalink

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