Conservatorships: Beyond Britney

Written by: Lee Sherman

Most people take for granted their ability to make financial decisions for themselves. But in the case of a conservatorship, a conservatee loses all control over that and most other life decisions. Case in point, the pop singer, Britney Spears, who, since 2008, has been held in a permanent probate conservatorship controlled by her father, Jamie Spears, with the assistance of business manager Lou M. Taylor, attorney Andrew Wallet, and professional fiduciary Jodi Pais Montgomery. Britney’s conservators control every aspect of both her personal and professional life.

The hashtag #freeBritney is trending on Twitter as fans rally to her defense. The conservatorship is so controversial that it was even the subject of a Hulu documentary called Framing Britney Spears. With all of the drama surrounding Spears, it helps to zoom back out and take a look at what a conservatorship is and why it exists in the first place.

What is a conservatorship?

Under US law, a guardian or protector can be appointed by a judge to manage someone’s financial affairs as a result of old age or physical or mental incapacitation. This is called conservatorship and the person under conservatorship is a conservatee. Britney Spear’s conservators successfully argued that she is unable to conduct her own affairs due to having dementia. This means that she no longer has any legal status as a person and cannot make any decisions for herself. Her conservators therefore decide everything from whether she is allowed to work or not, how she can spend her money, or even whether she can even leave the house on her own. Neither can she choose her own doctor or lawyer. She has also lost custody of her own children. Spear’s defenders say that the fact that she has been able to tour the world, release multiple albums and worked on a variety of television shows, calls the conservatorship into question.

Whether or not Spears is a victim or not is a debate that has long plagued popular music figures. Another example is the Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson, who suffered a similar fate at the hands of the controversial psychologist, Dr. Eugene Landy in December, 1991. Not only was Landy’s treatment unconventional, he even went as far as to assume co-writing credit on Wilson’s songs and became his “manager”.  Allegedly, Landy manipulated Wilson (who suffered from alcohol and drug abuse, obesity, and schizophrenia) for financial gain. Others include Joni Mitchell and the Eagle’s Randy Meisner.

When someone is financially successful, a conservatorship can be called into question. It seems clear that Landy took things too far but conservatorships can be beneficial to the conservatee. At least in concept, a conservatorship can allow a more capable person to make decisions for a friend or loved one. They are designed to be temporary and the decision to appoint someone to manage one’s affairs is often made by the individual themselves.

A conservatorship is an alternative to designating a caretaker with power of attorney with the following advantages:

  • It can allow someone who is incapacitated to lead a more fulfilling life and it can be a comfort to concerned family members.
  • A conservatorship gives the conservator the legal authority to deal with financial institutions like banks and investment institutions.
  • A conservatorship establishes a process by which a judge can approve life-changing decisions.

While these matters are emotionally troubling for all involved, a conservatorship is an additional option to consider when a loved one appears to be unable to care for themselves.

Lee Sherman is a contributing writer to MyPerfectFinancialAdvisor, the premier matchmaker between investors and advisors. Lee is an experienced journalist and editor with over 30 years of expertise with a significant history of writing in the personal finance and technology arenas.

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