How Conservatorships Work

The legal arrangement giving Britney Spears’ father control over her life and finances is more commonly used as a tool to protect the elderly or extremely ill.

Since early 2008, Britney Spears has released four albums, performed in Las Vegas more than 250 times, and served as a judge on the X-Factor. During that period, her father, Jamie, has controlled her finances and living situation under the terms of a conservatorship.

In 2008, while Britney was under round-the-clock supervision in a psychiatric hospital, Jamie Spears petitioned a Los Angeles court to name him and an attorney conservators of her multimillion-dollar fortune and her day-to-day life. While initially petitioning for a temporary conservatorship, Jamie was granted permanent conservatorship of his daughter only a few months later. 

Last week the New York Times obtained confidential court documents that revealed Britney has been quietly pushing to end her conservatorship for years. Details of a 2016 report show Britney told a court investigator that the conservatorship was being used as a tool to oppress and control her. The singer appeared in Los Angeles Superior court last Wednesday to contest her conservatorship.

A conservatorship is a court-approved arrangement in which a person or organization is appointed by a judge to take care of the finances and well-being of an adult whom a judge has deemed to be unable to manage his or her life. The appointment of a conservator may be temporary, usually for a period of 30 days, or permanent. Conservatorship laws and procedures may vary state by state, and are typically used to protect the elderly, mentally disabled, or extremely ill.

It is common for people to confuse the terms “guardianship” and “conservatorship.” The term guardianship generally refers to a situation in which a court grants an adult legal authority to represent and manage the affairs of a minor.

 There are two types of conservators: of an estate, and of a person. 

One appointed as a conservator of an estate will supervise bank accounts, finances, and bill-paying for an individual who is found by the court to be incapable of managing his or her own assets.  

The term “conservator of person” is used when an individual is appointed to supervise the everyday life of someone who is found by a court to be unable to meet essential requirements for personal needs—things like medical appointments, grocery shopping, or maintaining good hygiene. A conservator of person may also be referred to as a “legal guardian,” but terminology can vary from state to state. 

A court can determine, as it did with Spears, that a person needs both kinds of conservatorship. In these cases, two separate individuals may serve in these roles, or one person can fulfill both functions. 

Just as there are two types of conservators, there are two types of conservatorship proceedings: voluntary and involuntary. 

A voluntary conservatorship proceeding happens when one petitions a probate court to appoint a conservator. An elderly individual who needs assistance maintaining financial assets or personal needs would be one example. These proceedings are typically uncontested—and if they are, what is contested is who is appointed as a conservator, not the conservatorship itself. 

An involuntary conservatorship proceeding occurs when someone petitions the court to appoint a conservator for someone else. This might occur when a son or daughter petitions the court to be responsible for  their elderly parent, against that parent’s will. Involuntary conservatorship proceedings are usually contested.

If the subject of an involuntary conservatorship contests the proceedings,  medical evidence, expert testimony, and witnesses are introduced to determine the necessity of a conservatorship. 

There is no clear data that tells us the exact number of conservatorships in the U.S.—but there are estimates of more than 1 million.

Wendy Cappelletto, former president of the National Academy for Elder Law Attorneys, contends that conservatatorships are necessary to protect vulnerable populations from exploitation. 

“The biggest reason for having a conservator or legal guardian is protection from exploitation,” Cappelletto told The Dispatch. “It’s not just about preventing people from making bad financial or personal decisions themselves, it’s about defending them from people who want to take advantage of their disabilities for their own personal or financial gain.”

Cappelletto also acknowledges that there are still flaws in the system that need to be addressed: “There are bad conservators who slip through the cracks.” 

“A good conservator shouldn’t be trying to keep people under a conservatorship for any longer than is necessary,” she said, “or any more restrictive than necessary.”

If an individual who is subject to a conservatorship feels she can handle her own affairs, she can petition the court to end the conservatorship. The court investigator would examine the case and brief the judge, who would then issue a decision. Courts retain the right to terminate conservatorships at any time if the appointed conservator is not fulfilling his or her duties. 

Generally, a court investigator files progress reports every other year on the status of a conservatorship.

Critics argue that conservatorships strip individuals of their legal rights. To hire an attorney to challenge a conservatorship, the person subject to a conservatorship typically needs permission from their conservator.  Critics also argue that it’s too easy for conservators to take advantage of the individual subject to the conservatorship. 

A 2010 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found hundreds of allegations of physical abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation by conservators in 45 states and Washington, D.C., between 1990 and 2010. The report also alleges that conservators stole $5.4 million in assets in that period.

Spears’ court appearance last week marked the first time in years that she had spoken out publicly about her situation. 

Last Wednesday, according to the New York Times, she spoke for 23 minutes before the court, claiming that the conservatorship kept her from actions as simple as seeing friends and getting her nails done to removing her IUD and getting married.

“I shouldn’t be in a conservatorship if I can work. The laws need to change. I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive. I don’t feel like I can live a full life,” the singer said in court.