Op-Ed: Help people like Britney Spears by reforming conservatorship laws
“I didn’t know I could petition the conservatorship to be ended. I’m sorry for my ignorance, but I honestly didn’t know that,” Britney Spears said to the judge in a Los Angeles courtroom on June 23.
It is not surprising that Spears was unaware that she had the right to petition the court to end her conservatorship, because the only formal notice she received of that right was a court document titled “Notice of Conservatee’s Rights.” She received this one-page form when the court approved her conservatorship in 2008, while she was in the throes of a mental health crisis. The notice informed her that she could “ask a judge to end the conservatorship.” But there was no guidance about how to navigate the court system for her to make that request.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Elder Justice Initiative estimates that on any given day, 1.3 million Americans are under court-ordered conservatorships. In California, when adults are unable to manage their personal and/or financial affairs, a judge can appoint a third party to act on that adult’s behalf. State law provides for two types of conservatorships — of the person and of the estate. A conservator of the person is appointed to take over decisions concerning the personal care of the conservatee, such as healthcare, food, clothing and housing; a conservator of the estate oversees decisions regarding the conservatee’s financial affairs.
In 2008, when a California judge appointed Spears’ father as the conservator of her person and co-conservator of her estate, he was given almost total control over every aspect of his daughter’s life. In 2019, he stepped down as conservator of her person for “personal health reasons” and was replaced by a temporary conservator but continued as the conservator of her estate, with a co-conservator, the wealth management firm Bessemer Trust.
While Spears’ recent court statements described her mental, physical and emotional suffering under the conservatorship and she declared her desire to terminate the arrangement, the issue before the court that day was not ending the conservatorship, but her petition to remove her father as the co-conservator. The judge denied this request. In response to Spears’ testimony, Bessemer Trust has informed the court that it wants to resign from the conservatorship. Additionally, Spears’ own lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, whom she did not choose, has yet to file a request with the court to officially end the conservatorship.
Reform of the laws governing conservatorships is long overdue. In March, Assemblyman Evan Low (D-San Jose), Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) and Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) introduced legislation to prevent conservatorship fraud and abuse. The bill, AB 1194, would create registration requirements for conservators and strengthen laws to revoke conservators’ rights if they aren’t acting in the best interest of their clients. But more reforms are needed.
All conservatees should be afforded the protections of a Bill of Rights. Currently, only a handful of states, including Minnesota, Florida, Michigan and Texas, have them. Minnesota’s bill of rights is the most comprehensive, including the right to “at any time, petition the court for termination or modification of the guardianship or conservatorship,” the right to “marry and procreate, unless court approval is required,” the right to “personal privacy” and the right to “be consulted concerning, and make decisions to the extent possible, about personal image and name, unless restricted by the court.”
Spears’ conservatorship has been in place for 13 years. But we don’t know why it has lasted this long because, at the discretion of the judge, her hearings were closed to the public and the transcripts sealed. It is only because Spears’ requested more transparency that the judge opened the June 23 court proceeding. Evidentiary hearings like these should be held annually and be open to the public, unless conservatees show good reason to close them.
Current law places the burden of proving that they are no longer in need of conservatorships on conservatees. Thus Spears will have to prove to a judge or jury that she is competent and able to manage her life and affairs. Reforms should be made so that the conservator who initiated the conservatorship is required to prove that the arrangement should continue, if the conservatee petitions to end it.
Under California law, the conservatee must pay the reasonable fees of all attorneys involved in the proceedings. This means that Spears must not only compensate her own attorney, but also the legal team retained by her father, who have fought to continue the conservatorship, despite her opposition. And, in a heads he wins, tails she loses situation, if he were to lose in court, her estate will still be ordered to pay his legal bills, should the judge find that he acted in good faith and in Britney’s best interests. The New York Times reported that “a recent $890,000 bill from one set of Mr. Spears’s lawyers, covering about four months of work, included media strategizing for defending the conservatorship.” The possibility that Spears will have to foot the bill for these fees is absurd, yet under California law, it could happen. This loophole must go.
The plight of Britney Spears makes it clear that placing individuals under conservatorships, depriving them of the right to make their own life decisions, is serious business. The laws governing conservatorships should be no less so.
Britney Spears has been a media and pop culture object of derision, pity and indifference to her humanity. On Wednesday, she stood up for herself.
LaDoris Hazzard Cordell is a legal commentator and a retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge. Her memoir, “Her Honor,” will be published in October.
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