Learn three key takeaways from Britney Spear's conservatorship issues.
February 17, 2021
With the new documentary "Framing Britney Spears" and the "Free Britney" social media trend and hashtag creating a movement, it's no secret that Britney Spears is under a conservatorship and is not happy with her father being her conservator. This has created an interest in conservatorships and how music artists, entertainers, celebrities, and others can avoid or protect themselves from a conservatorship or whether a particular person should act as a conservator.
1. Conservatorships are typically the last resort for people who can't take care of themselves or their finances
A conservatorship is the legal system's solution to help people who, for whatever reason, can no longer take care of themselves or their finances and if they also didn't adequately previously plan for their potential incapacity through other legal means like power of attorney documents. A person is deemed incapacitated usually when a person is severely mentally ill, physically disabled, or if they're unlikely to ever adequately recover from a severe injury or other medical condition, such as a coma or dementia, and they can no longer manage their finances or stay safe and healthy. When this is the case, courts and judges establish a conservatorship and give one or more people, businesses, or other entities, called the conservator(s), control of the incapacitated person, called the conservatee, and often their finances or businesses.
A conservator who has authority over the conservatee's person gives them the right to control their physical activities. The conservator often can control, among other things, when and where the incapacitated person can reside or travel, who is allowed to care for, have access or communicate with them, who their medical and mental health physicians are, and even when, where, and what treatments, medications, and food the person will receive. It's been reported that until 2019 Britney Spear's father was a co-conservator over Britney's person and had control over her medical decisions and who could visit or communicate directly with her.
In addition, to control over a conservatee's person, a conservator or multiple conservators can also have control over the conservatee's estate, finances, and businesses. This means the conservator can control and have access to the person's money, business entities, and others assets. This includes the ability to manage or even sell things like the person's houses, real estate and personal property like cars, vehicles, and jewelry, and retirement, investment, and bank accounts, and more. The conservator will often also be responsible for paying the bills and debts of the incapacitated person as well as making any needed investment decisions on their behalf. Recently, Britney Spear's father was stripped of his role as the sole conservator over Britney's estate, finances, and businesses, and now he shares this control with co-conservator Bessemer Trust, a wealth management and planning firm.
Courts and judges are usually cautious in deciding to place someone under a conservatorship. While they're typically a last resort, conservatorships still occur often, especially when the person has repeatedly, or will likely at some point in the near future, create an excessive burden on the government or be a danger to themselves, others, or greater society as a whole. This reluctance is because a conservatorship essentially strips the fundamental rights of the person who is deemed incapacitated, and then grants a typically large amount of authority to control the person and their estate and finances to any conservators.
2. Terminating or getting out of a conservatorship can be difficult
A conservatorship can be terminated if the alleged incapacitated can show that they're capable of making sound financial and healthcare decisions. However, courts and judges are often reluctant to remove a conservatorship. This is because while conservators are granted authority to control the incapacitated person, and often their estate, finances, and businesses, the authority and actions of the conservators are consistently overseen and reviewed periodically by the judge or court. In some states, a jury trial can be requested by the alleged incapacitate person to determine whether the person should remain under the conservatorship. As you can imagine, attempting to terminate an established conservatorship is often unfortunately incredibly time consuming and expensive.
What's interesting is that in Britney Spear's case, her lawyer reportedly claimed in the latest court appearance that Britney is a "high-functioning conservatee". One would think that an alleged high-functioning conservatee like Britney would be capable of making sound financial and healthcare decisions. Without knowing the detailed facts of Britney's situation however, it's impossible to draw any definite conclusions about her ability to adequately care for herself or her finances.
3. You can usually avoid being placed under a conservatorship or at least have say or control in who your conservator is
Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself from being put under a conservatorship, or at least allow you to likely control who your conservator(s) will be if you're ever placed under one. Drafting and executing the proper legal documents, including a general power of attorney and a healthcare power of attorney can help to protect you.
A general power of attorney is a document that allows one or more other people or entities to control your estate, financial, and business affairs if you should become incapacitated. This would make the need for any conservatorship over your estate, finances, or businesses, unnecessary.
Likewise, a healthcare or medical power of attorney allows one of more other people to make medical or healthcare decisions for you should you become incapacitated. It often removes the need to establish a conservatorship over you as a person, but is sometimes inadequate as it doesn't necessarily provide for adequate authority over who has access or communication to you outside of medical reasons. As a result, a court may still believe that a conservatorship over you as a person is needed.
Fortunately, if a conservatorship is still needed, judges and courts will often name those same who you choose to have power of attorney over you in your documents, as your conservators. This is especially true if you include in your general and healthcare power of attorney documents that you would like those same people to be conservators if ever necessary. Courts and judges will often try to honor the preferences when possible, to the alleged incapacitated person who they are placing under a conservatorship, as to who their conservators should be so long as the wishes were adequately made clear prior to the need for the conservatorship. As a result, it's important to have the proper documents drafted and executed, pick quality conservators who you trust, and to ensure that your power of attorney documents are properly updated as soon as needed. Unfortunately, it appears that Britney Spears either never drafted and executed these documents or never updated them to express her desire to have parties other than her father her potential conservator or grant them power of attorney.
There's no doubt that Britney Spears conservatorship issues are complex and we don't currently have all the facts. While placing Britney under the conservatorship was likely a last resort, and it can often be difficult to terminate an existing conservatorship, there are things that could've been done earlier to avoid these current issues. Knowing this, other music artists, entertainers, actors, and celebrities should speak with a music or entertainment attorney to make best efforts to avoid the possibility of ever being placed under a conservatorship with conservators they don't want.
If you want any additional information on conservatorships, power of attorney documents, and how to avoid or get out of a conservatorship, please call us at 615-671-4301 or contact us at The Fruitful Firm anytime.
Zach Scott Gainous is an entertainment and music lawyer and estate planning attorney in Nashville, and the managing attorney and founder of Nashville estate planning and entertainment law firm The Fruitful Firm. Zach regularly provides legal expertise, advice, and representation for music artists, actors, entertainers, celebrities, creators, and professionals.
Disclaimer: This article or post is not and should not be considered or used as a substitute for legal advice or the hiring of an attorney. You should always carefully seek out legal advice and representation from a qualified attorney to assist you with your legal matters and issues.