How Conservatorship Can Lead to Abuse — UVA Law Professor Weighs In

Q. There has been so much coverage in the news about Britney Spears and her court-enforced conservatorship, and now I’m confused about conservatorships in general. I thought conservatorships are for people with severe cognitive impairments, and from what I’ve read about her, she may have had bad judgment in the past, but she doesn’t seem to have serious mental problems.

From what I’ve read, courts don’t just impose conservatorships on people. They’re most commonly for those with serious diminished mental capacity, and those who suffer from something dramatic such as a traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, or some other type of dementia. Is this true, and if so, why has Britney Spears been subject to a conservatorship for thirteen years and why won’t they end it? Why would anyone do that to their daughter? Thanks so much for hopefully helping to clarify!

A. Britney Spears, the pop singer, turns 40 this year and is 13 years into a court-enforced conservatorship that has exercised control of her life and money. Britney’s father, Jamie Spears, has said the conservatorship saved her from collapse and exploitation. She has sought more control over how it operates, and says she wants her father out.

How Do Conservatorships Work?

When a person is considered to have severely diminished mental capacity, a court can step in and grant someone else conservatorship to make legal and financial decisions for the person with diminished mental capacity.

Many people get guardianship and conservatorship confused, and Britney‘s case in California does not help with this confusion, because California law is itself very confusing in this regard, in that California uses the term conservatorship to also include what would be called in most states a guardianship of an adult.

A guardian in most states, including in Virginia, Maryland, and DC, is a person appointed by the court who is responsible for the personal affairs of a person with diminished mental capacity, including responsibility for making decisions regarding the person’s support, care, health, safety, habilitation, education, therapeutic treatment, and residence. A guardianship may be a total guardianship or a limited guardianship. Read more about guardianships and conservatorships here.

In California, where Britney resides, a conservatorship is used for someone who is “substantially unable to manage his or her own financial resources or resist fraud or undue influence.” This is basically the same definition is in most states. But in California, conservatorship is also used for a “person who is unable to provide properly for his or her personal needs for physical health, food, clothing, or shelter” — this latter use of the term being what in most states is called a guardianship.

In Virginia, DC, and Maryland, a conservator (called a financial guardian or “guardian of the property” in Maryland, as opposed to a “guardian of the person”) is a person appointed by the court who is responsible for managing just the legal and financial affairs of an incapacitated person. A conservatorship may be a total conservatorship or a limited conservatorship (when financial assistance is needed only for specific matters). The conservator, as the appointee put in charge is called, may be a family member, a close friend, or a court-appointed professional.

How Spears’ Conservatorship Works

With assets totaling more than $50 million, the court closely guards the inner workings of Spears’ conservatorship. However, some aspects have been revealed in documents.

  • Her father, Jamie Spears, has largely been in charge of his daughter’s conservatorship through the years, though his every move is scrutinized by the court.
  • From 2008 until 2019, Jamie Spears had power over Britney’s life choices, and he and attorney Andrew Wallet controlled her money. Now, he has financial control only, and must share that role with the Bessemer Trust, an estate-management firm. Jodi Montgomery, a court-appointed professional, now acts as conservator over Britney’s personal matters (again, in most states, this would be called a guardianship).
  • Montgomery has the power to restrict Britney’s visitors. She also arranges and oversees visits with Britney’s sons, ages 14 and 15; father Kevin Federline has full custody.
  • Montgomery has the power to take out restraining orders, which she has used more than once to keep away shady interlopers.
  • Montgomery has the power to make medical decisions for Britney.
  • Legally, Spears can get married, but Montgomery must approve it as with other major life decisions.
  • Montgomery is subject to annual reviews from a court investigator.

Why Was the Conservatorship Imposed in the First Place?

In 2007 and 2008, shortly after she became a mother, Britney began to have very public mental struggles. Paparazzi followed her every time she left her house, and she wasn’t able to handle it. In retaliation, she attacked one cameraman’s car with an umbrella. She shaved her head at a salon. She lost custody of her children. When she refused to turn over her boys after a visit, she was hospitalized and put on a psychiatric hold. The conservatorship was put in place within days of all these events happening.

Why Has it Gone On So Long?

A conservatorship can be dissolved by the court, though it’s rare that a person successfully asks to be released. The burden is on them to prove that they have regained their mental capacity.

Conservatorships can last decades, because few of the circumstances that lead to them are temporary. The mandatory secrecy of medical records has kept private the reasons why Britney Spears must remain under conservatorship, but it’s clear that it involves psychiatric issues. A recent filing said that she still wasn’t capable of giving consent for medical treatment.

Jamie Spears and his attorneys have emphasized that Britney is especially susceptible to people who seek to take advantage of her money and fame. All sides agree, at least in theory, that she should be able to make her own choices if she becomes able.

What many people don’t realize is that Britney Spears has never asked the court to end the conservatorship. And in a recent court filing she said it “rescued her from a collapse, exploitation by predatory individuals and financial ruin” and made her “able to regain her position as a world class entertainer.” But she has sought more say in who runs it and has emphasized that she reserves the right to seek to end it at any time. She’s also been clear in saying she wants her father out entirely. Her lawyer said at a recent hearing that she fears him and will not end her lengthy career pause as long as he maintains control.

UVA Law Professor Weighs in on Why Conservatorships Like the One Controlling Britney Spears Can Lead to Abuse

In a recent article, writer and UVA law professor, Naomi Cahn, weighed in on how conservatorships similar to Spears’ can lead to abuse.

According to Professor Cahn, “(c)onservatorships are typically not imposed on someone who doesn’t have severe cognitive impairments, and Spears has toured the world, released four albums and earned US $131 million, all while deemed legally unfit to manage her finances or her own body.”

Professor Cahn believes that “conservatorships similar to the one controlling Spears are subject to multiple forms of abuse, ranging from the imposition of unnecessary restrictions on the individual to financial mismanagement. And nothing can be done if no one finds out about the abuse.”

Not many conservatorship abuse cases have gained much exposure in the past. As described in one of our blog posts, a 2017 New Yorker article on abusive guardians highlighted the case of April Parks, who was sentenced to up to 40 years in prison for financial conduct related to numerous conservatorships she handled. She was also ordered to pay more than half a million dollars to her victims. Beyond this and a few other cases that were exposed, no one knows the magnitude of the problem.

A recent movie about guardianship and conservatorship (“I Care A Lot”) is still very popular on Netflix. For details about the movie, please see our post, “Is the New Netflix Movie “I Care A Lot” Realistic About Guardianship?”  The movie’s plot involves a shady legal guardian who abuses the system by targeting wards that don’t really need her, places them in care facilities, and then assumes control of their assets. “Framing Britney Spears” is also a buzzed-about documentary produced by the New York Times for FX and Hulu, that has been nominated for two Emmy Awards. If you want to watch Framing Britney Spears online, you’ll need to sign-up for Hulu. Not a subscriber? Hulu currently has a 7-day free trial that will let you stream the Britney Spears documentary online for free, and re-watch it on demand as many times as you want.

Please see our blog for additional posts about guardianship and conservatorship.

Professor Cahn sees Britney Spears’ case as generating more attention for conservatorships and potential abuse. She concludes: “Spears may soon find herself free of her conservatorship. Regardless, her situation has already put a spotlight on the potential for abuse – and it may lead to a better system for those who genuinely need the assistance.”

Guardianship and/or Conservatorship Can Be Avoided if You Plan in Advance

A Power of Attorney is a legal document created by one person, known as the principal, to give another person, known as the agent (sometimes called attorney-in-fact), legal power to act on behalf of the principal. The document can grant either broad and unlimited powers or limited powers to act in specific circumstances or over specific types of decisions. Typically, a Power of Attorney is effective immediately, but is intended to be used only when necessary — at such time when the principal has reached the point where he or she is no longer able to make sound decisions or exercise sound judgment.

To read about why a general Power of Attorney is greatly preferred to a guardianship and/or conservatorship, please see my article on this subject, “Why Guardianship Should be a Last Resort.”

Do You Have a Power of Attorney in Place?

If you have not done a Power of Attorney, now is the time to get it done as part of a comprehensive Incapacity Plan which includes an Advance Medical Directive and Long-term Care Directive®, or as part of a comprehensive Estate Plan which includes an Incapacity Plan and a living trust to avoid after-death probate. Please contact us to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

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Fredericksburg Power of Attorney: 540-479-1435
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DC Power of Attorney: 202-587-2797
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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.