What Is a Conservatorship?
Recently I listened to a pop-culture podcast in which they discussed Britney Spears’ very public conservatorship. The reason why this was a topic of conversation is because Britney Spears was deemed competent to testify in a case against her former manager. This brings up whether Britney Spears is also competent to care for herself. However, the podcast hosts made it clear that they don’t know what a conservatorship is and what it isn’t. For example, they weren’t sure if she was even allowed to have her own phone or make her own schedule. This made me realize that not that many people actually know what a conservatorship is.
In California there are two types of conservatorship, of the person and of the estate. You can request one or both. Conservatorship of the person is when someone cannot provide their own basic needs (i.e., bathing, eating, getting and taking medication, getting food, getting medical attention, etc.) whereas conservatorship of the estate is when an individual can no longer manage their finances properly due to some deficit. However, in most circumstances when a request for conservatorship is made, it is both for the estate and the person.
Further, conservatorships are generally not friendly procedures. The person that is being conserved likely does not want their freedoms taken away, even if it is for their own benefit, so courts do not like to grant them. Generally speaking, the court will send out an evaluator to the proposed conservatee to see if they actually need the help that the person trying to get conserved claims they do. This generally involves looking at the property and talking to the individual. The investigator will then make a report and provide it to the judge. The judge will then set an evidentiary hearing for both sides to plead their case, including the proposed conservatee, but generally speaking, the judge will follow the investigator's recommendation.
I have seen a lot of cases where one sibling believes that the other sibling is trying to get their parent conserved so that they can control their parent’s finances for ill-gotten purposes. The court is fearful of that too. This is why even if the investigator recommends someone to be conserved, if there is a showing that one party may be a bad actor, the court will order a third party neutral (most often a professional fiduciary) to act as the conservator, at least for the estate.
Something else to keep in mind, once someone is appointed as conservator of someone else, they also receive a tremendous amount of responsibility in fiduciary obligations to the conservatee. The court will generally require that the conservator account for their actions at least annually (it can be shorter or longer depending on the situation) and at these hearings the court will also assess whether the conservatorship needs to continue.
Most of the time the court will find that the conservatorship must continue, simply because most people that need a conservatorship suffer from some sort of degenerative disorder that by its very nature will only get worse in time. Britney Spears’ case appears to be different though. The conservatorship was granted when she was 26 years old. That is incredibly young. The conservatorship was also granted because of a mental breakdown, versus a degenerative disorder. Therefore, it is well within the realm of possibility that Britney is receiving treatment that have minimized her symptoms that gave rise to the need for her to be conserved in the first place, especially because a court has found her to be competent to provide testimony.
With all of that said, even with a conservatorship Britney has a lot of control over her daily life. She can go on social media, make her own schedule, and do what she wants to do, she is not imprisoned in her hotel suite. More or less Britney just doesn’t have to deal with a lot of the small headaches that most of us do. Although even with court supervision it puts her in a very vulnerable position to completely depend on someone else to care for her financially, medically, etc.