Britney Spears and her ongoing fight for financial freedom is drawing new attention to the broken side of a conservatorship system that is meant to protect individuals with special needs.
Spears’ outcry in June to end her 13-year conservatorship raises questions around the validity of that conservatorship while highlighting the need for increased federal protections for the roughly 1.3 million Americans with disabilities who are directly affected.
Also known as guardianships, conservatorships are commonly placed upon people with permanent special needs, like elderly adults or individuals with mental illnesses or disabilities who cannot handle their own affairs. Spears’ conservatorship has placed an arguably highly functioning individual into a permanent state of oversight, raising the question of whether Spears should have been placed into a conservatorship to begin with, said Daniel Yerger, president and founder of MY Wealth Planners.
In fact, Spears claimed during her June 23 testimony that she proves to be a high-performing individual every day because she choreographs dances for her shows, employs others, and makes millions of dollars a year performing. Yerger said this was well-stated proof that she should not be placed in a conservatorship.
“I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist and I’ve never seen her tests,” Yerger said. “But I’ve also never seen a conservatorship for someone who I would consider a competent adult.”
Yerger said he has worked as an accredited investment fiduciary for several dozen conservatorships managed by professional fiduciaries and law firms.
“I don’t know that anybody could name another individual worth millions of dollars who is actively working and performing in a business that has been forced into a conservatorship,” he said. “[Britney], by all indications, is a very well-functioning adult. You’d be stretching really far to say that she can make money, but is not capable of handling her everyday life otherwise.”
To be fair, conservatorships are largely used for good reason and any sign of abuse is typically rare, Yerger said. Still, while the general public does not have access to Spears’ mental health evaluations, there are a lot of questions around the continued validity of her situation, he said.
“Conservatorship remains a valuable tool for people with permanent incapacity or challenges,” he said. “It should be much more conditional and should be under much more strict review in the case of people who have more temporary or potentially temporary conditions.”
BURDEN OF PROOF
Changing the terms or ending conservatorships are inherently difficult because they are bound by law. There needs to be tangible proof to the presiding judge that the protected person has been restored to sufficient mental capacity to manage their own affairs, said Lisa Cukier, a partner at Burns Levinson law firm with a specialty in estate planning.
“This is not public opinion, whether it’s Britney or anybody else, this is about whether an individual lacks capacity to manage certain aspects of their life,” Cukier said. “For some reason, in 2008, the court felt that she needed protection. Now she needs to show and prove that she doesn’t need protection, and she’s going to have to do that with evidence that unwinds the very grounds and basis for the conservatorship in the first place. She’s got to untie the shoelace.”
Spears could prove she is mentally competent by appointing her own clinician to evaluate her mental wellness and identify the ways in which she exercises rational thought, Cukier said.
Once an individual is under a conservatorship, they will find it challenging to go from requiring a conservatorship to proving they can sustain their newfound success without the structure of a conservatorship, said Noah Damsky, Principal at Marina Wealth Advisors in Los Angeles and former adviser for conservatorships while at Bessemer Trust from 2014 to 2018.
Spears is running into a situation in which it’s challenging for her to prove what has materially changed in her life that assures the courts that she is capable of managing all decision-making responsibilities, Damksy said. “The last thing the court wants to do is take the training wheels off and then have the bike fall over and someone gets hurt.”
Spears, who was 26 at the time her conservatorship started, could have been offered a less permanent option, like a durable power of attorney, Yerger said.
A durable power of attorney acts as a permission slip, giving authority to a third party to do things on behalf of someone else who cannot do it for themselves. If an individual does not have a durable power of attorney and becomes unable to manage their personal or business affairs, that’s when an individual may be declared incompetent in court resulting in a court-appointed guardian or conservator, according to the American Bar Association.
“Britney could have been placed in a program that would last through her mental incapacity with more clear guidelines around when and where it will cease to apply, versus a conservatorship where, essentially, an entire set of legal rights is being transferred from one party to another on a centrally permanent basis, barring the future removal of that conservatorship,” Yerger said.
As for removing her father from her conservatorship, which Spears has attempted to do multiple times, Spears will also have to establish proof that he has been abusive and that he is self-interested, Cukier said.
Spears has had a strained relationship with her father, which has financial advisers questioning the decision to have a family member appointed to control her estate versus a fiduciary-bound financial adviser.
However, when Spears told Los Angeles probate Judge Brenda Penny about her experience with her conservatorship during her June testimony, including claims of abuse and conflict of interest by her father Jamie Spears, the judge denied her request to have her father removed from the conservatorship.
A message left seeking comment from Britney Spears through her agent at Creative Artists Agency was unanswered.
Bessemer Trust, the wealth management firm that served as co-conservator of Spears’ estate, subsequently asked to resign as one of the overseers of her financial estate and was quickly approved. Spears’ previous court-appointed lawyer Samuel Ingham was granted permission to resign as well.
Bessemer Trust likely resigned because of the headline risks, Damsky said. “It’s not good PR and it’s not worth the bad name,” he said.
A Bessemer representative was not immediately available for comment.
As a result, Spears was granted the right to choose her own lawyer for the first time ever in her conservatorship. Spears selected Mathew Rosengart, a prominent Hollywood attorney, as her counsel, which means she could be closer to formally petitioning for the removal of her conservatorship, Cukier said.
“When the judge said to her she could retain counsel of her choosing, that was huge because that potentially was recognition by the judge that she has sufficient mental capacity to make a selection and contact an attorney to represent her,” Cukier said.
“It’s a carve-out because conservatorships are an adjudication that an individual lacks mental capacity to handle their finances, but here the judge is saying that she can contract with the lawyer,” she said.
On Monday, Rosengart formally filed in Los Angeles Superior Court to have Spears’ father Jamie removed as conservator of her estate, calling her father “toxic” and claiming he stripped his daughter of her “dignity, autonomy, and certain fundamental liberties,” according to court documents obtained by FreeBritney.army.
CONGRESS GETS INVOLVED
Spears’ case has prompted two lawmakers to rethink the entire system. Reps. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., and Charlie Crist, D-Fla., introduced last Tuesday the bipartisan “Free Britney” Act to address conservatorship abuse and protect the rights of the Americans under conservatorships.
“We don’t know how many people are being held captive against their will under the broken guardianship system,” Crist said in a statement. “We do know, however, that we need federal safeguards to protect persons under guardianship from abuse and exploitation.”
Mace and Crist using Spears as a catalyst to establish federal safeguards for individuals under guardianships is a positive step forward compared with other members of Congress. For example, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who is currently under investigation for allegations of sex trafficking and having sex with a minor, has been accused of attempting to exploit Spears’ high-profile conservatorship case to distract from his own controversies.
The legislation introduced by Mace and Crist would provide a person under guardianship with a caseworker to monitor for signs of abuse and advise them of their rights.
“Under the FREE Act, we would Free Britney along with the countless number of seniors and persons with disabilities being abused and exploited by the broken system,” Crist said.
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Andrew is half-human, half-gamer. He’s also a science fiction author writing for BleeBot.