Britney Spears has been freed from her conservatorship. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny ended the 13-year financial and personal conservatorship after months of hearings, fan protests, and, of course, Spears’s own impassioned testimony. The legal arrangement was ended fairly simply, without the need for additional psychological or medical examination because Spears had never had a court declaration of incapacity. Her conservatorship was established “voluntarily.“ Reports state that because all interested parties agreed that the arrangement is not necessary anymore, the matter could be expeditiously ended. Such a decision was especially kind to Spears, who has suffered enough, regardless of her experiences and needs. A transition plan is in the works to assist Spears with getting her personal and financial affairs in order, although it appears that she will have assistance in managing her estate, which, given her public status and professional successes, is quite large. As Spears is in the public eye, we will surely be witness to how she proceeds without a conservator.
Despite the news, questions still remain as to what happened during the conservatorship and what, if any, abuses existed. Spears’s case has cast a light on the roles of guardians, the scope of their powers and how to balance an individual’s sense of self with the control that such a legal arrangement provides. Spears’s case was special — and not just because she was a superstar. On the one hand, it showed that individuals can require court intervention, regardless of race or economic status. A conservatorship can be implemented for someone who is impoverished and in need of government assistance just as it may be suitable for someone who has access to major assets. The Spears case also revealed the complexity of having a conservatorship for someone who is a public figure, who generates millions of dollars and who has complicated personal relationships. Spears’s case also shows that it is possible for a high-functioning, working individual to need assistance or even perhaps legal intervention. But most importantly, Spears’s case revealed that she was suffering under the arrangement and that the legal system needs to adapt to the needs of a ward for whom it seeks to supervise. Regardless of whether she needs a conservator or not, Spears’s now famous plea to the court, organic and heartfelt, teaches all of us to listen, and then to adapt appropriately. Of course, any discussion of Spears’s conservatorship must include the role that social media, specifically the #FreeBritney movement, played in speaking, if not screaming, Spears’s voice when she could not.
Conservatorships can be difficult to manage when one tries to balance the protections put in place with the desires of the individual. It comes as no surprise that a court will only issue a conservatorship as a last resort, when all other options have failed. As a practitioner, I trust in this court and that it has made the right decision. I have not seen all of the evidence, and I cannot comment on what Spears needs or does not need. I also trust that, in 2007, the court made a decision to protect Spears because the evidence presented showed that it was warranted. I do hope that while this appears to be a happy moment for Spears, she continues to receive the assistance she needs, help that anyone with affairs as complex as hers would require. Often a conservatorship exposes that an individual needs assistance, but perhaps not an arrangement as drastic as a conservatorship. In lieu of a conservatorship, maybe estate planning documents are executed or a care plan with a manager implemented.
This case is also important because it demonstrates that not all guardianships pertain to the elderly or those with dementia or other cognitive failures. There are individuals who have unique issues and the charge for practioners and the courts is to make certain that the conservatorship forum is the right way to deal with it and if it is, to tailor the arrangement to the person’s specific needs.
Finally, not all guardianship cases are as seemingly glamorous as Spears’s situation. There are many conservators and guardians who do not receive compensation, or if they do, they volunteer even more of their time to take care of items as mundane as ordering food and clothing, cleaning dilapidated houses, or arranging for home care. There are important charges and responsibilities such as consenting to medical care and budgeting so that one’s assets can last as long as possible. Perhaps the greatest duty of many guardians is the final one, in making sure that one’s ward has a respectful burial or cremation, often when there are no family or friends to notify of the passing.
There are countless situations where individuals have no one to help them and are living in terrible conditions, and the court, through appointed guardians, steps in to give them help because they are unable to manage themselves. There are situations where individuals are residing in good conditions but are being financially exploited. Without guardians or conservators to help people whose functional limitations are such that they cannot manage their personal and financial affairs, these individuals would not be able to live safely. While Spears’s case may highlight the issues with a conservatorship when there is fortune, fame, and a complicated family history, there exists a whole canon of cases, wherein professionals, dedicated to the field, work with strangers, dealing with their most intimate needs, because they believe in the system.
As in every facet of life, there are cases involving problematic people and situations. I, myself, am honored to have the courts before which I practice entrust people unto my care and am committed to discharging my duties … so long as they need it.
Cori A. Robinson is a solo practitioner having founded Cori A. Robinson PLLC, a New York and New Jersey law firm, in 2017. For more than a decade Cori has focused her law practice on trusts and estates and elder law including estate and Medicaid planning, probate and administration, estate litigation, and guardianships. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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