Part 2: Celebrity Series – Guardianship and Conservatorship (Britney Spears)

A “guardian” of an adult is a person appointed by the court who is responsible for the personal affairs of an incapacitated adult, including responsibility for making decisions regarding the adult’s support, care, health, safety, habilitation, education, therapeutic treatment, and residence.  A “conservator” is also appointed by the court, and is responsible for managing the legal and financial affairs of an incapacitated person.  In some states, a “conservator” is called a “guardian of the estate” and the “regular” guardian is called the “guardian of the person.”

The law does not make it easy for someone to obtain guardianship or conservatorship, unless the person they are trying to help really needs it, because doing so takes away so many legal rights of the protected person.  Just because someone makes bad, or even unsafe decisions, does not mean that they qualify for having a court-ordered guardian or conservator.  If they did, then every drug-addict and alcoholic in the country would need one. Rather, these types of court proceedings are typically used for those who have a mental illness caused by age, injury, or disability, not those who make bad choices.

Last week, we looked at Amanda Bynes, a troubled celebrity whose erratic behavior and her family’s fear that she might be suffering from schizophrenia has caused them to seek conservatorship. Today, we will look at Britney Spears, whose father has been her court-appointed conservator since 2008. Ironically, Spears records albums, performs worldwide, and is one of the most recognizable celebrities in America. Yet while she is under conservatorship, she does not have the right to make financial or legal decisions for herself.

Part 2: Britney Spears

Britney Jean Spears was born on December 2, 1981, and she is the second child of Lynne Bridges and James Parnell Spears. At age three, she started attending dance lessons and during her childhood, she also attended gymnastics and voice lessons, and won many state-level competitions and children’s talent shows. At age eight, Spears and her mother Lynne traveled to Atlanta to audition for the 1990s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club. Casting director Matt Casella rejected her for being too young to join the series at the time. In December 1992, after attending the Professional Performing Arts School in New York City, she was finally cast in The Mickey Mouse Club, but returned to Kentwood after the show was canceled.

In June 1997, Lynne Spears, with the help of a family friend and entertainment lawyer, submitted a tape of Spears singing with some pictures to four record labels. Executives from one of the labels, Jive Records, signed her to the label.

Her debut album, …Baby One More Time, was released on January 1999. It was certified two-times platinum and has sold 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. It is also the best-selling first album by any artist ever.

Oops!… I Did It Again, her second studio album, was released in May 2000. It debuted at number one in the US, selling 1.3 million copies, and the tour grossed $40.5 million. On September 7, 2000, Spears performed at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. Halfway through the performance, she ripped off her black suit to reveal a sequined flesh-colored bodysuit, followed by a heavy dance routine. It is noted by critics as the moment that Spears showed signs of becoming a more provocative performer. Amidst media speculation, Spears confirmed she was dating ‘N Sync member Justin Timberlake.

In February 2001, Spears signed a $7–8 million promotional deal with Pepsi. That same year, she released two books co-written with her mother, Britney Spears’ Heart-to-Heart and A Mother’s Gift. Her third studio album, Britney, was released in November 2001 and the tour that followed grossed $43.7 million. Her career success was highlighted by Forbes in 2002, as Spears was ranked the world’s most powerful celebrity.

In June 2002, Spears’s relationship with Justin Timberlake ended after three years. She released her fourth studio album, In the Zone, in November 2003. NPR listed the album as one of “The 50 Most Important Recordings of the Decade.”

In January 2004, Spears married childhood friend Jason Allen Alexander and the marriage was annulled 55 hours later. In July 2004, Spears became engaged to dancer Kevin Federline, whom she had met three months before. The stages of their relationship were chronicled in Spears’s first reality show Britney & Kevin: Chaotic. They held a wedding ceremony on September 18, 2004, but were not legally married until three weeks later on October 6 due to a delay finalizing the couple’s prenuptial agreement. In September 2005, Spears gave birth to her first child, Sean Preston Federline.

In February 2006, pictures surfaced of Spears driving with her son Sean on her lap instead of in a car seat. Child advocates were horrified by the photos. In September 2006, she gave birth to her second child, Jayden James Federline. In November 2006, Spears filed for divorce from Federline, citing irreconcilable differences. Their divorce was finalized in July 2007, when the couple reached a global settlement and agreed to share joint custody of their children.

Spears became affected by her recent divorce and the death of a close aunt, and soon turned to drug abuse and erratic behavior.In February 2007, Spears stayed in a drug rehabilitation facility in Antigua for less than a day. The following night, she shaved her head with electric clippers. She admitted herself to other treatment facilities during the following weeks. In January 2008, Spears refused to relinquish custody of her sons to Federline’srepresentatives. She was hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, after police that arrived at her house noted she appeared to be under the influence of an illicit substance. The following day, Spears’s visitation rights were suspended at an emergency court hearing, and Federline was given sole physical and legal custody of the children. She was committed to the psychiatric ward of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and put on an involuntary psychiatric hold. The court placed her under temporary conservatorship of her father James Spears and attorney Andrew Wallet, giving them complete control of her assets.

Recently, Britney Spears’ conservatorship has reached its fifth year anniversary. Thirty-one-year-old Britney looks a great deal different than from five years ago.  According to Forbes magazine, on her recent role on The X Factor, she was mature, composed, and even graceful at times. She mentored teenage singers.  She held herself together and gave constructive feedback.  Britney was reportedly re-energized by the experience and is ready to start releasing new music and touring again. “What thirty-one-year-old Britney doesn’t look like is someone who is legally incompetent, unable to make decisions about her own life.”

There have been many reports that Spears was fed up with the conservatorship and being treated like a child with no rights over her own life. However, Britney is said to have a psychological condition, such as bipolar disorder, that justifies the continued need for conservatorship.  There is a great deal about her situation that the general public doesn’t know.  Many people have psychological disorders without having their most basic rights stripped away from them.  The question is, for how long does her condition and past meltdowns continue to justify the conservatorship?

There is no question that Britney’s father, James Spears, did the right thing filing for conservatorship to protect her.   He likely saved her life, and certainly saved her career.  Under his management, her assets grew to $27.5 million by the end of 2010, according to accounting records filed in the conservatorship.  The conservatorship also shielded Britney from having to testify in several lawsuits against her. Does her erratic behavior, drug abuse and possible psychological disorder justify the conservatorship indefinitely?  Shouldn’t Britney be given a second chance to live her life as an adult at some point?  I guess we will see what unfolds!

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Guardianship is an extreme form of intervention in another person’s life because control over personal and/or financial decisions is transferred to someone else for an indefinite, often permanent period of time.  Once established, it can be difficult to revoke.  Therefore, guardianship should only be used as a last resort.

Very few people want to have court oversight and be unable to make decisions without getting someone else’s permission.  That’s a big reason why proper legal planning is so important. The very same protections can usually be achieved without any court proceeding, through the use of good Power of Attorney documents for medical and financial decisions. If you and your loved ones don’t already have up-to-date power of attorney documents in place, then it’s critical to do so right away.

Certainly there are times — as with the celebrities described in this series — that Powers of Attorney aren’t enough to help.  But those instances are the exceptions, not the rule.  Every adult 18 years and older should have proper power of attorney documents, just in case.See Part 1 of the series for other alternatives to guardianship and conservatorship.

In the next part of this series, we will discuss Lindsay Lohan,whose father, Michael Lohan, doesn’t think his daughter should be in charge of her own affairs because of her drug use, mental instability, erratic behavior, and frequent arrests, and who is trying to obtain a conservatorship for her. Are these things enough to warrant such extreme action? Read Part 3 next week to find out.

If you have an incapacitated family member and you would like to talk about your options, call 703-691-1888 to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation at The Fairfax and Fredericksburg Elder Law Firms of Evan H. Farr, P.C.

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