Last week was a big week in terms of people buzzing about conservatorship. The “Framing Britney” documentary aired on Hulu, and it revived the #FreeBritney movement all over social media. Fellow celebrities and regular folks alike were all sharing thoughts on Britney Spears and her conservatorship. The world hasn’t been this united on an issue in decades. The question is, however, is whether we really understand what a conservatorship is and all that goes into it.
As it turns out, a conservatorship is a deeply complicated and multi-faceted issue. There are also a lot of grey areas and it’s not just for famous pop singers. So, to get to the heart of what conservatorship is, and the complex issues surrounding it, for both Britney Spears and average Americans, I talked to Maria Galante, an attorney at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron with experience in conservatorship proceedings.
Conservatorships, also known as guardianships, are “proceedings created for people that cannot manage their own affairs or make decisions,” Galante says. “They aren’t able to function and do things like pay bills, make doctor’s appointments, handle their prescription medications or get groceries. These kinds of proceedings are set up by states to protect people, often the elderly or severely mentally ill. Basically, a conservatorship allows someone, either a court-appointed proxy or power of attorney, to make decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so,” she says.
But the details of who can qualify for a conservatorship range greatly. One common reason someone might be under a conservatorship is because they suffer from a severe mental illness that inhibits their ability to execute day to day responsibilities. “A conservatee can be any adult that needs help—either due to mental or physical illness. It’s about whether that person is unable to function. In young people, it’s usually seen with mental illness,” Galante says. While conservatorship is not just for the elderly, it is often necessary in cases of dementia or Alzheimers.
Naturally, the legal grey area makes the very idea of a conservatorship ripe for manipulation.
There is also usually some kind of episode that triggers the situation. Britney Spears and her conservatorship case is the perfect example. Her public mental breakdown in 2007, during which she shaved her head in front of paparazzi and beat a car with an umbrella, is what set off the need for intervention. These kinds of trigger situations are very common when it comes to conserving someone. “I have cases where the person goes and gets naked in the middle of the street or gets violent with neighbors. Guardianships are really to protect the person from harming themselves or others,” says Galante.
These protections are put in place by the court to protect not only the person being conserved but also their assets and property, especially when, like in Spears’ case, there are considerable assets involved.
How common is it for cases to be rejected?
Conservatorship cases are not an automatically done deal. There are plenty of cases that end up denied by the court. “Judges are very discerning and experienced in these situations,” according to Galante. An alternative to full conservatorship that the court will often consider is a temporary guardianship if there isn’t enough evidence to justify a permanent one.
There are a variety of reasons why a court might reject a conservatorship case. Often, families bring cases without significant proof of a reason to conserve.” If someone has a lot of money and decides to live in a tent, that’s free will,” says Galante, “Being eccentric and spending money isn’t necessarily cause.” It’s all about whether these actions will harm the person themselves or someone else.
Who qualifies to be a conservator?
Like most aspects of a conservatorship case, who can be the conservator, the person in charge of making decisions on behalf of the conservatee, is a complex issue. “In the eyes of the court – it depends,” says Galante, “Each state has different rules—family members, spouses, and adult children in certain situations, these people might not be the right fit. The court must check the background of these people, and sometimes cases require a professional, especially for business decisions”
This especially applies to someone like Britney Spears who has a considerable estate and business dealings that require a knowledgeable and qualified decision-maker. This is why Jamie Spears, Britney’s father, shares his conservatorship responsibilities with a professional.
When someone is under a conservatorship, the court is responsible for this person and responsible for ensuring that person is well taken care of. “In my experience judges are very careful in who they appoint,” said Galante, “Extensive safeguards are in place and conservators must be ready to explain every single expense”.
In deciding between a family member versus a court-appointed professional to act as conservator, the court has several things to consider. “Do family members mean well or not? Is this person going to be divisive or abuse the situation or take advantage? We want someone who has that level of knowledge and skill to navigate the decision process and follow the directions of the court,” Galante says. “Some family members resent the checks and balances, but on the other hand, a court-appointed conservator has no history with that person and may have just met.”
Ultimately, each case is very different. It all depends on the history, the allegations, and the dynamics involved.
Concerns that come with conservatorship?
These kinds of cases are incredibly complex and there is no such thing as a simple case. There are a lot of grey areas, and a lot of ignorance when it comes to how the public talks about conservatorship.
Civil rights violations are always a concern, and courts have to investigate the facts of each case very carefully. “Sometimes it’s a very fine line. It’s all about doing homework,” Galante says.
What do you think, as a legal professional, of the characterization of Spears’ situation as a civil rights issue?
“People need to understand there is no black and white. It’s a process that’s been created to preserve a person’s rights. Steps were taken to ensure the person is represented by the court” says Galante. Spears does have an attorney of her own to represent her interests.
Conservatorships can be terminated, and for reasons known only to Spears and her legal team, she hasn’t filed for that. “There is a way out, but there is a process,” says Galante, “It’s [a] conservatee’s job to convince a judge.”
Ultimately, Spears’ case may be more complicated than any of us know. Galante suspects that “the reason she hasn’t terminated her conservatorship may be because it has something to do with the custody of her children. She might have a diagnosis that no one knows, or is biding her time. The conservatorship has been successful financially. Her assets doubled in value. It’s easy to let emotions lead us, but she is represented in court. We will never know until something else happens,” says Galante.