The sobering case of Britney Spears demonstrates what can happen when the court system is responsible for making your decisions for you. The court ordinarily only becomes involved if you have not set out your wishes in advance in your financial power of attorney, advance health care directive and your revocable living trust.
As most familiar with pop culture know by now, Britney has been living under a conservatorship for the past 13 years. Also known as “adult guardianship,” a conservatorship is a legal structure in which the court granted Britney’s father, Jaime Spears, and other individuals nearly complete control over her legal, financial, and personal decisions. The conservatorship was initially established in February 2008 after Britney suffered a mental breakdown, which resulted in her being briefly hospitalized.
Back in 2008, the court appointed Britney’s father and attorney Andrew Wallet as her co-conservators, as Britney was deemed mentally unfit to care for herself. The arrangement was only meant to be temporary, but in October of that year the conservatorship was made long-term, and her father has remained in nearly complete control of Britney’s life ever since.
Under the conservatorship, Britney’s father has the power to restrict her visitors; he is in charge of arranging and approving her visits with her own children; he has the authority to make her medical decisions; and he has the final say in all of her business deals, including when she works, and the complete authority over all of her financial matters.
As it stands now, Britney’s current mental-health status remains unclear, and we can’t be sure whether or not she still requires someone to help her manage her financial and business affairs. But what is abundantly clear is that given the chance, Britney would have undoubtedly preferred to have some say in not only who should be in charge of making decisions on her behalf during her incapacity, but also how those decisions should be made.
Yet because Britney did not create legal documents indicating who should make decisions for her if she could not make decisions for herself, a judge decided for her.
Years Of Abuse And Conflict
Although there has been widespread speculation that Britney’s conservatorship was abusive, the exact details of her conservatorship have been kept private. Moreover, until very recently, Britney had never spoken publicly about her life under the arrangement.
It has recently come to light that Britney had expressed serious opposition to her conservatorship as early as 2014, and on multiple occasions pushed for her father to be removed from his position. However, we now know that Britney had not been allowed to appoint her own lawyer and has been represented by a court appointed attorney.
In recent weeks Britney has been able to appoint her own lawyer, who has moved to end her father’s conservatorship.
A Broken System
Britney’s plight highlights the real potential for abuse that exists within the conservatorship and guardianship system. In fact, there have been dozens of highly publicized reports in recent years involving corrupt professional guardians, who exploit those under their care for their own financial gain. Yet, in those cases, the victims have nearly all been elderly, and their abusers were strangers. But Britney’s situation makes it clear that people of any age can fall prey to these restrictive legal arrangements, and the abusers can even be your own family members.
Furthermore, and perhaps the most puzzling part of the whole situation, is why someone as young and active as Britney is still living under a conservatorship. Conservatorships and guardianships are typically used to protect the elderly and mentally disabled who are incapable of making their own decisions and caring for themselves, and they often remain in effect until the person dies.
Incapacity Planning is Critical
Whether it is mental illness, age-related dementia, or a serious accident, we are all powerless to prevent the potential for incapacity. However, with the proper estate planning, you can at least have control over how your life, healthcare, and assets will be managed if something does happen. Moreover, such planning can also prevent your family from enduring the bitter conflict and expense that can result when you leave control over your life in the hands of the court, which is what has happened in Britney’s case.
Comprehensive estate planning involves putting in place an array of estate planning vehicles that would make it practically impossible for a conservator or legal guardian to ever be appointed—or even need to be appointed—against your wishes.