With Britney Spears’ conservatorship case in the spotlight recently, the term “conservatorship” has, possibly for the first time, become a household term. The truth is, the details and facts behind Spears’ case are not yet fully accessible to the public and it may be some time until fans have the full story. It is, however, undeniable that her case and presence on social media has effectively created a movement, known as the “Free Britney” movement, which highlights issues for millions of other individuals across the country affected by conservatorships.
Now that “conservatorship” is a commonly used term, we can take this opportunity to fully understand what it is and how it can be beneficial to a conservatee or; if placed in the wrong hands, limiting and unjust.
Defined in legal terms, a conservatorship is a where a court makes an adjudication of incapacity and appoints an individual or professional fiduciary known as a “conservator” to act on behalf of another individual (i.e., the “conservatee”) who cannot manage their own affairs. Conservatorships are created for a host of reasons; but, they are most often put into place for those with intellectual disabilities, serious mental illness, and elderly individuals who have lost their capacity due to some form of dementia.
In some cases, conservatorships can be highly beneficial for the conservatee. A justly appointed conservator makes selfless decisions regarding the conservatee’s health and medical care, residence, education, employment, recreation, and overall well-being. When used properly, it relieves the conservatee from the burden of complex issues and protects them from exploitation and abuse from others who might seek to take advantage of them. The Conservator’s job is to step into the shoes of the conservatee and effectuate his or her decisions and act in the conservatee’s best interest. Always.
Unfortunately, conservatorships can be used by individuals to take advantage of the conservatee’s estate or micro-manage their day-to-day decisions or even worse – abuse. Removing a conservator, as seen in Spears’ case, can be a long, complicated, and costly legal battle.
Although conservatorships are understood in the legal field, in my practice as a trusts, estates & probate attorney, it is not uncommon that individuals come to me when it is too late. Because estate planning and conservatorships are not a popular topic, there are very few people who understand the importance of planning. By the time legal action is necessary, either to contest a poorly-matched conservator or begin the process of obtaining a conservatorship for a loved one, there may be obstacles in place that could have been avoided with the proper legal counsel.
In an attempt to affect change, life-long fans of Spears have employed social media to act as advocates for Britney Spears. Her case should remind all of us of the importance of proper estate planning, which includes making decisions while capacitated as to who one would want in charge of their person and estate so that if one needed to act due to one’s incapacity, it would be someone that individual trusted.
Valerie Powers Smith is a Partner at Slovak Baron Empey Murphy & Pinkney LLP. She has more than twenty years of experience in the field of special needs and elder law including the following highly specialized practice areas: health care insurance, short-term and long-term disability insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, special needs trusts, trust administration, estate planning & administration, guardianships and conservatorships. Valerie also practices in the area of estates, trusts and probate.