At age 26 in 2008, pop star Britney Spears was put under a court-sanctioned conservatorship. That meant that other people (including her father) that had been named as a conservator were allowed to make decisions about her career and her money. The story has attracted so much attention that it has its own New York Times documentary, and its own hashtag on Twitter, known as the #freeBritney movement. Recently, after 13 years of acting as a conservator, Britney Spears’ father finally agreed to step down from his position managing his daughter’s estate and career.
Britney Spears’ conservatorship and the associated #freeBritney movement has brought a lot of attention to these legal scenarios, but what do guardianships and conservatorships actually entail?
On today’s episode of the Taxgirl podcast, Kelly is joined by Alexandra “Sasha” Golden to explain more about conservatorships and why Britney Spears’ case has folks so captivated. Sasha received her undergraduate and law degrees from Boston College, and has been practicing law in Massachusetts since 1994. Attorney Golden is a long-standing member of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) and of the Probate and Solo and Small Firm sections of the Massachusetts Bar Association.
Listen to Kelly and Sasha talk about Britney Spears & conservatorships:
- What is guardianship and conservatorship, and why do they feel so “extraordinary” when it comes to major cases like Britney Spears? Sasha explains a guardianship is control of a person, while conservatorship is control of a person’s estate. However, in California (where Britney’s case has been handled), both are lumped together as a conservatorship.
- What are the specific reasons a court may instate a guardianship or conservatorship? Sasha details the details in the law that point to an individual that is incapacitated or unable to make decisions for themselves; the first key step is to obtain clinical proof of the individual’s condition/s.
- In the case of Britney Spears, the courts had to receive detailed statements from doctors and psychologists that confirmed her incapacitated state in order to place a conservatorship in place.
- Oftentimes, guardianship can be consensual between guardians and the individuals. On the other extreme, such as a case with someone with advanced dementia, an individual may not be able to agree or disagree to anything and a guardianship is put into effect for their best interest.
- After a guardianship or conservatorship is put in place, there have to be periodic updates and revisits in the court to share how things are going and what recommendations may be going forward.
- There’s often a lot of money wrapped up in these conservatorships. In the Spears case, her personal estate is somewhere in the range of 60 Million. Managing an estate as a conservator has to be in the best interest of the individual. But Spears’ father has taken $16,000 a month for his own salary, while Britney herself has been given $2,000 a month of her own money.
- Who gets to be the guardian or conservator? It can be a family member like a spouse, child, parent, or sibling, but complications can arise when conservators do not manage their responsibilities to the individual’s best interest.
- What happens when conservators mismanage funds, or even well-meaning conservators hire financial assistance that goes haywire? The fault falls on the person acting as the fiduciary, but the details can get hairy.
- What are some good steps to take initially if someone feels a person in their life might need a conservatorship? Sasha says she always encourages people to start by hiring a geriatric care manager to help sort out details and be an advocate for the individual. The next step would be bringing an elder care attorney into the team.
- Something that’s getting a lot of buzz now is called supportive decision making, where a person chooses people in their life to give them feedback on the decisions they want to make. This can be a less extreme alternative to guardianship or conservatorship.
- In the Spears case, Sasha says there seems to be some “long standing dysfunction” in the Spears family, which is likely contributing to the complex drama of her estate management and her father’s decisions.
More about Kelly:
Kelly is the creator and host of the Taxgirl podcast series. Kelly is a practicing tax attorney with considerable experience and knowledge. She works with taxpayers like you every day. One of the things that she does is help folks out of tax jams, and hopefully, keep others from getting into them.
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