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By Jennifer E. McGuire and Sarah Krasner

Oops… she did it again! Britney Spears jumped back into popular consciousness in late April when she posted an Instagram video of her workout—along with an announcement that she had burnt down her home gym six months ago. Spears’ carelessness with candles led many to fear that she might be suffering from another mental breakdown, akin to that which led to her being conserved more than a decade ago.

Nature of a Conservatorship

A conservatorship is a court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the “conservator”) to care for another adult (called the “conservatee”) who cannot care for themselves or manage their own finances.

A conservator of the person makes sure the conservatee has food, clothing, shelter, and health care. Depending on the conservatee’s ability to understand and make decisions, the conservator may need to make important medical choices for them. A conservator of the estate takes care of the conservatee’s finances, ensuring their bills are paid and their assets are managed. A conservator can have one or both of these powers, and the powers can be split or shared between and among different people.

Types of Conservatorships

There are two types of conservatorships:

Probate Conservatorships

Probate conservatorships are the most common type of conservatorship and are based on the laws in the California Probate Code. There are two kinds of probate conservatorships: general and limited.

A general conservatorship is typically a conservatorship of an adult who cannot take care of themselves or their finances. General conservatees are often elderly but can also be younger adults who have been seriously impaired.
A limited conservatorship is typically a conservatorship of an adult with developmental disabilities who cannot fully care for themselves or their finances.

Spears’ case is a probate conservatorship. It is exceedingly rare for a young person to be conserved for mental health issues by a family member.

Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Conservatorships

If an adult has a serious mental illness and requires special care, such as restrictive living arrangements and extensive mental health treatment, a local government agency can start an LPS conservatorship. These cannot be petitioned for by private individuals. If you believe you know an adult in need of such an arrangement, contact your county’s Public Guardian or Public Conservator. The information in this article does not apply to LPS conservatorships.

Why is a Conservatorship Needed?

If an individual has neither a power of attorney nor a healthcare directive and does not have the ability to make informed decisions and/or to care for themselves, they need a conservatorship. A conservatorship protects adults from undue influence and other types of predatory conduct.

Elders are those generally thought of first when speaking of a conservatorship. In the absence of a power of attorney (which would provide many of the same abilities once incapacity was determined), a conservatorship allows the conservator to assist the conservatee with medical decisions and financial matters. People with special needs are also often conservatees, such as those with severe forms of autism or down syndrome. Conservatorships can also be used to help those who have been severely incapacitated by accident or illness, both physical and mental.

That is the case with Britney Spears. After several years of increasingly concerning events, from her 2004 55-hour marriage, several stints in rehab, issues with child protective services, erratic driving, a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold, and commitment to the psychiatric ward at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, a temporary conservatorship was granted in February 2008 in California. This temporary conservatorship made her father, Jamie Spears, conservator of her person, while conservatorship of her estate was split between Mr. Spears and her attorney, Andrew Wallet. The conservatorship was made permanent eight months later and has remained in place since that time. Although not quite the pop sensation she once was, the conservatorship has allowed Spears to continue working while allowing her to live a less ‘toxic’ life.

What Happens After A Conservator is Appointed?

The conservator may be required to petition the court for additional relief. This may occur if, for example, the conservator wishes to establish a trust for the conservatee, sell the conservatee’s residence, or make other changes to the conservatorship. Changes may also need to occur because of events affecting the conservator. The conservator’s personal circumstances may change, making it impossible to continue to serve. The ability to make changes and to anticipate the need for changes can be especially important for cases like Spears’ where a parent is the conservator of their child. If the parents become incapacitated or predecease the child, it is important to know if a sibling or other relative will assume responsibility in order to minimize disruptions.

In 2019, renewed attention was drawn to Spears’ conservatorship. First, the attorney who shared conservatorship of Spears’ estate stepped down, leaving Mr. Spears as the sole conservator of the estate. Later that year, Mr. Spears attempted to temporarily step down due to his health issues. Jodi Montgomery, Spears’ longtime care manager and a licensed professional fiduciary, was made temporary conservator of her person, although Mr. Spears maintained control of her estate.

Can a Conservatorship Terminate?

A conservatorship for an elderly person is typically a permanent arrangement that terminates upon the death of the conservatee. However, a conservatorship may be terminated when the individual recovers from their medical or mental difficulties.

For Spears, this means she could one day be free of her conservatorship—even as soon as this summer. Many fans, supporters of the #freebritney movement, have clamored for the singer to be granted independence. Various websites that speculate on the doings of celebrities have accumulated rumors which suggest Spears is in the process of trying to end the conservatorship for the first time since 2009, when an attempt failed.

How Are Conservatorships Affected by COVID-19?

Just as the virus has wreaked havoc on people’s lives, so has it wreaked havoc on the court system. Each of the 58 branches of the California superior court system received permission from the Chief Justice to make the rules that made the most sense for their jurisdiction, resulting in 58 different sets of rules about remote access, filings, and trials. For some courts, this meant shuttering their doors completely and postponing everything. For others, limited staff continued processing filings. Although courts continued dealing with emergency matters, many civil matters fell by the wayside. Even as courts hesitantly reopen, relying on drop boxes and remote appearances to help provide social distancing, resources will be directed to the criminal divisions first. This leaves those in need of conservatorships relying on emergency applications for temporary conservators. Fortunately, most probate courts are prioritizing conservatorships over other types of probate matters, since conservatees are often among society’s most vulnerable. Still, there are significant delays. Court investigators are unable to visit parties in person and court appointed counsel are unable to visit clients in nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities.

According to new court documents, a Los Angeles County judge ordered on April 20 that the conservatorship of Spears be extended through August 22. The new extension was made because courthouses were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If Spears is seeking a change, that change will likely have to wait.

Conservatorships can be a valuable tool to take care of loved ones. They can also be confusing and complicated. If you have a loved one in need of a conservatorship, speaking to an attorney is the next step.