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Articles

Understanding the Conservatorship of Britney Spears and Less Restrictive Alternatives

on April 1, 2021
Late ’90s and early 2000s pop star Britney Spears has been making headlines lately that have nothing to do with her illustrious singing career. Ms. Spears has been under conservatorship for more than a decade, and she has filed several pleadings in recent years to express to the court her disapproval of the control that her father continues to maintain over her finances.

In 2008, after Ms. Spears underwent a series of involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations, the Los Angeles Superior Court placed her under conservatorship and named her father, Jamie Spears, along with an attorney, Andrew Wallet, as co-conservators. At that time, the court appointed Mr. Spears and Mr. Wallet as conservators of the person and the estate of Ms. Spears. Analogous to the nomenclature under California law, in Massachusetts, these same designations are identified as guardian of the person and conservator of the estate.

The role of a guardian of the person is to make all decisions about the individual’s support, care, health, and welfare. In contrast, a conservator of the estate is responsible for managing all financial affairs on behalf of the individual, and has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the person under conservatorship. Both guardianship and conservatorship will be granted by the court only if there has been a determination of incapacity. Under the Massachusetts statute, an incapacitated person is defined as an individual who has a clinically diagnosed condition that results in an inability to make or communicate decisions so that “the individual lacks the ability to meet essential requirements for physical health, safety, or self-care, even with appropriate technological assistance” M.G.L. Ch. 190B, Section 5-501(9). Both California and Massachusetts laws require that a guardian and/or conservator be appointed only if there are no other less restrictive alternatives available. While the court filings in these types of proceedings are typically public record, the court has the ability to seal the records in certain cases. In addition, medical documentation evidencing incapacity is automatically sealed by statute in Massachusetts and California.

In the case of Ms. Spears, the court placed her under conservatorship of the person and the estate in 2008. In 2019, Mr. Wallet resigned as co-conservator, and in 2020, the court appointed a corporate conservator, Bessemer Trust, to serve as co-conservator of the estate alongside Mr. Spears. For more than a decade Mr. Spears has maintained total legal control over his daughter’s assets.

Controversy and debate regarding the necessity of the conservatorship stems from Ms. Spears’ repeated attempts to remove her father as her conservator. Ms. Spears’ fans have become known for staging protests outside Los Angeles courthouses during her conservatorship hearings, bringing further attention to these already high-profile proceedings. In addition, the New York Times recently released a documentary, Framing Britney, that details Ms. Spears’ life and the conservatorship saga. One critical piece of information that has been kept from the public is any and all medical evidence that details to the court why the conservatorship, or Mr. Spears’ involvement, is necessary and in the best interest of Ms. Spears. To date, the court has denied all of Ms. Spears’ petitions to completely remove her father as conservator of her estate. In 2019, Mr. Spears stepped down as conservator of the person and was replaced by a temporary conservator of the person, Jodi Montgomery, who was chosen by the court.

In certain limited cases, because of the medical diagnoses of the individual or other circumstances, guardianship and conservatorship are unavoidable upon an individual’s incapacity. However, in the large majority of cases, the expense, time, and public nature of these court proceedings can be avoided by executing certain legal documents. For example, in Massachusetts, a Health Care Proxy is a document that allows an individual to appoint an agent to make health care decisions on his or her behalf if he or she becomes incapacitated. Typically, the authority of a health care agent is invoked only upon a determination of incapacity by a physician.

For financial decisions, there are two common ways to avoid the need for conservatorship: through a Power of Attorney or through a Trust. A Power of Attorney is a document that allows an individual to designate an agent to make financial decisions on his or her behalf. A “durable” Power of Attorney is effective immediately upon execution, whereas a “springing” Power of Attorney requires a doctor’s determination of incapacity to be invoked. A Trust is a fiduciary arrangement that allows a grantor (trust creator) to transfer legal title to property to a trustee, to be managed on behalf of a beneficiary or beneficiaries. Typically, for a simple, revocable trust, a client will be named as the grantor, trustee, and beneficiary of the trust while he or she is alive and has capacity, and will name a successor trustee who can step in if he or she becomes incapacitated (or passes away).

One benefit of each of these documents is that they typically avoid the need for court involvement and oversight when an individual becomes incapacitated because the individual legally designated someone to make medical or financial decisions on his or her behalf while he or she still had capacity to do so. Another benefit of these documents is that the terms are private, which means that the details of the individual’s finances and wishes will not be available in any publicly accessible records. Finally, these documents allow an individual to choose in advance who will be responsible for important medical and financial decisions at the point that he or she can no longer make such decisions, rather than leaving the decisions to a judge. If court involvement becomes necessary, the court will also weigh heavily the incapacitated person’s preferences for the guardian and/or conservator stated in his or her legal documents.

Ms. Spears’ conservatorship case is unusual because of her celebrity, her young age, and her multimillion-dollar estate. Without the ability to review the full legal record in her case, including all medical evidence, it is difficult to determine whether conservatorship may have been avoidable for Ms. Spears. However, in the vast majority of cases, executing the proper estate planning documents prior to incapacity can forestall the need for guardianship and conservatorship.  FT




©2021. This material is intended to offer general information to clients and potential clients of the firm, which information is current to the best of our knowledge on the date indicated below. The information is general and should not be treated as specific legal advice applicable to a particular situation. Fletcher Tilton PC assumes no responsibility for any individual’s reliance on the information disseminated unless, of course, that reliance is as a result of the firm’s specific recommendation made to a client as part of our representation of the client. Please note that changes in the law occur and that information contained herein may need to be reverified from time to time to ensure it is still current. This information was last updated April 2021.

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