All About Estates

#FreeBritney: Toxic, Conservatorships, and Guardianship Abuse

This blog was written by Raluca Gondor

You may know Britney Spears for her hit songs like Piece of Me, Toxic, and Criminal. But lurking behind a wildly successful career is a darker aspect of her life, one that may be foreshadowed by her song titles: Britney Spears’ conservatorship.

Since February 2008, Britney Spears has been under a probate conservatorship which restricts her ability to manage her estimated $60M estate and make personal health decisions. Unfortunately, it’s not really her prerogative after all…

Wait… what is a conservatorship?

In California, a conservatorship is established when a judge appoints an individual or an organization (the “conservator”) to care for an adult (the “conservatee”) who is incapable of making their own personal care decisions or managing their property. This is comparable to court-appointed guardianship for personal care and/or property in Ontario. As a fiduciary, a conservator has an obligation to act in the best interests of the conservatee.

However, in June 2021, Britney publicly spoke out against the conservatorship in open court, stating that her father and anyone involved in it should be in jail.

So, are conservatorships/guardianships inherently bad?

Guardianship abuse has been in the media more and more, with films like I Care a Lot and documentary series Dirty Money drawing attention to the potential risks associated with it. Even the Black Mirror episode, Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too, about a fictitious pop star named Ashley O has been likened to Britney’s situation.

As fiduciaries, seeing people take advantage of the power dynamics associated with their roles probably makes your stomach turn. But Britney said it best: “[We] can sit here all day and say oh, conservatorships are here to help people. But ma’am, there is a thousand conservatorships that are abusive as well.” And while we may never know the intricacies of Britney’s relationship with present and previous conservators, there are a few points about guardianship abuse that are worth discussing.

Guardianship Abuse: Risk Factors

The National Centre on Law and Elder Rights in the US lists several factors that can increase the risks of guardianship abuse, several of which are applicable to Britney’s case:

  1. The guardianship appointment was contentious due to family disputes and/or conflicts of interest

The circumstances through which Britney’s conservatorship was established were questionable at best, as she had been placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold when the court appointed her father Jamie Spears and Andrew Wallet without informing her. Since then, those around her have consistently portrayed Britney as unstable, further perpetuating this cycle.

  1. The individual has no local support from family or friends

Many sources have corroborated the fact that Jamie kept Britney isolated from her family and friends, often pushing them away if they got too close to her. At times, she was allegedly not even allowed to have her own cell phone. With limited outside support to turn to, a conservator could easily manipulate or take advantage of a conservatee under their care.

  1. The individual has a large estate

As a world-famous pop star with a career spanning over 2 decades, Spears has amassed significant wealth and just like in her song, her conservators all want a piece of her. Since the conservatorship began, she has released 4 albums with 4 respective tours and a residency in Las Vegas. Over the years, her conservators have profited handsomely off her successes. Britney stated: “The control [my father] had over someone as powerful as me — he loved the control to hurt his own daughter 100,000%.” As such, there is a significant incentive for them to preserve the conservatorship and continue to be compensated for it.

  1. The court makes rushed appointments and monitoring is minimal

For years, Britney Spears has been privately petitioning the courts to release her from the conservatorship and claims that she has been largely ignored by the Californian legal system. If even someone as influential as Britney felt so powerless speaking out against the conservatorship, this feeling must be multiplied for conservatees who lack her resources and platform. In the US in 2019, an estimated 1.3 million adults were under the care of guardians, controlling approximately $50 billion USD of their assets. With sealed court documents, the public never knew (and may never know) the full extent of Britney’s situation under the conservatorship.

As a public figure, Britney claimed she didn’t want to share these details openly because she thought people would simply dismiss her experiences and say that “She’s lying, she’s got everything, she’s Britney Spears.”

Stronger than Yesterday

Working with her new lawyer, Mathew Rosengart, many are confident she’ll come out of this stronger than she ever thought she could be. Britney’s story has inspired US legislators to consider strengthening legal protections for conservatees, with the hopes that more people will be served by guardians acting in their best interests.

 

 

 

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