Britney Spears’ 13-year old conservatorship is making headlines once again after a judge denied a 2020 request to remove Ms. Spears’ father as conservator of her finances. Ms. Spears delivered an emotional testimony at the hearing and indicated she may soon petition the court to end the conservatorship altogether. The resurgence of the #FreeBritney movement is a good opportunity to discuss the legality of conservatorships and how attorneys can help.
What is a conservatorship?
A conservatorship is a legal relationship that arises when the probate court appoints a person (conservator) to be in charge of personal financial decisions for an incapacitated individual (the ward). Oftentimes, like in Ms. Spears’ case, the conservatorship is indefinite due to mental health or chronic health reasons. The court may appoint a conservator if the ward is unable to manage their own property, or if the ward has property that will be wasted or not used to support themself if protection is not granted.
What are the duties of a conservator?
When a court appoints a conservator, the ward no longer has authority over their financial matters. The conservator has the power to manage the incapacitated individual’s financial and personal property in a way that supports or benefits the individual. A conservator owes the individual a duty of loyalty and is considered a fiduciary to the ward. As a fiduciary, the conservator cannot personally benefit from the individual’s assets. After being appointed, a conservator is required to prepare and file with the court an initial inventory of the assets subject to the conservatorship. A conservator must also file an annual accounting statement to show receipts and disbursements from the estate.
How is a conservatorship terminated?
The incapacitated individual or any person concerned for the ward’s wellbeing may petition the court to terminate the conservatorship or remove and replace the conservator. A court can then terminate the conservatorship entirely or remove the conservator for good cause. In the case of a conservatorship of a minor, termination occurs automatically upon the minor reaching the age of majority. In the case of a conservatorship of an incapacitated adult, the conservatorship may terminate when the individual regains capacity or dies.
How can an attorney help?
A good first step in determining if a conservatorship is appropriate is speaking with an attorney. If someone you know is struggling to manage their money, pay their bills, make financial decisions for themselves or suffers from dementia or other chronic health problems, they may benefit from a court appointed conservator. In some circumstances, an attorney can draft estate planning documents that may allow a third party to assist in managing an individual’s financial affairs without appointing a conservator. However, this does not prevent the ward from being able to access their finances or be taken advantage of by scammers or criminals. An experienced attorney can then help explore different types of conservatorships or alternatives that would best suit the individual. For example, a limited conservatorship that allows the individual to retain the right to make certain decisions and manage certain assets may be a good fit instead of a full conservatorship.