Guest author Karina Stanhope, a Downey Brand associate, contributes today’s post.
A recent New York Times article shined new light on Britney Spears’ conservatorship. Well known for her instant rise to stardom as a Disney Mouseketeer, Ms. Spears’ fame as a young, up-and-coming pop star in the 1990s was boundless. Little less than a decade later, however, media outlets and tabloids provided a darker view of what Ms. Spears’ life had become. The more famous Ms. Spears became, the less control she appeared to hold over both her private and public life. Ms. Spears’ escapades worried fans and family alike, and in 2008, her father, James Spears, took legal action. A Los Angeles court appointed Mr. Spears conservator over Ms. Spears’ person and estate, with a lawyer aptly named Andrew Wallet serving as co-conservator over her estate.
The conservatorship continues to this very day, and being a huge fan of Ms. Spears, I could not help but wonder why such a prosperous individual would still need a conservator to help her look after herself and her finances. After all, if Ms. Spears’ social media profiles and interviews are any indication, she is thriving. Interestingly, the reason Ms. Spears is the woman she is today may have a lot to do with the protections her conservatorship has provided. The larger lesson is that any young adult who can accept the constraints of a conservatorship may benefit from them.
“I’m A Slave 4 U” – Conservatorships May Help Young Adults Facing Substance Abuse and Mental Health Challenges
In California, a conservatorship is a court proceeding in which a judge may appoint a responsible person or organization to care for and/or manage the affairs of an adult. The person appointed is called the “conservator,” and the person who the conservator looks after is called the “conservatee.” Under California Probate Code section 1801, a conservator “of the person” is appointed to care for the personal needs of the conservatee. A conservator “of the estate” manages the conservatee’s financial affairs. Sometimes the conservator is appointed to handle both. A conservator is often a family member or friend, although the court may appoint a public guardian or professional fiduciary instead.
Conservatorship cases are most commonly brought when individuals become too elderly or infirm to care for themselves. However, sometimes even young adults need help to care for themselves. In Ms. Spears’ case, substance abuse and an undisclosed mental illness reportedly caused her troubles. She is not alone in this respect. With respect to Americans aged 18-25 in 2014, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that 22 percent were users of illicit drugs, 37.7 percent were binge alcohol users, and nearly five percent had a serious mental illness.
A conservator of the person can make sure the conservatee takes his or her medication and discourage interaction with individuals who promote self-destructive behavior. A conservator of the estate can ensure that the conservatee is protected from third parties seeking to financially exploit the conservatee. Essentially, the conservator takes a huge weight off of the conservatee’s shoulders. This may be particularly attractive to young, successful individuals who are employed in high-stress jobs and make large sums of money.
“I Wanna Go” – Preventing Conservatorship Abuse, Particularly Among Wealthy Individuals
Conservatorships have disadvantages. For wealthy individuals, such as Ms. Spears, a conservatorship may be a blessing or a curse. Conservatorships restrict freedoms, including the freedom to contract and associate with whomever you want. Accordingly, the California Probate Code sets a high bar for imposition of a conservatorship. Probate Code section 1800.3 requires the court to find that “the granting of the conservatorship is the least restrictive alternative needed for the protection of the conservatee” before ordering appointment of a conservator. Moreover, the proponent carries the heavy evidentiary burden of presenting “clear and convincing evidence” that a conservatorship is actually needed. And, a proposed conservatee who opposes a conservatorship is entitled to demand a jury trial.
If the proponent can overcome these hurdles, and a conservatorship is established, the potential for abuse by the conservator looms large. This is a particularly thorny issue in the context of wealthy individuals with conservatorships over their estates. California Probate Code section 2640 allows the conservator and the attorney of the conservatee to request and obtain reasonable compensation for their services, payable from the conservatee’s estate. For well-off conservatees, these fees may be quite large. For example, the New York Times article estimates that Ms. Spears has paid nearly 9 million dollars to her conservators and lawyers, including court-appointed counsel, since 2008. Although the fees may compensate the conservator and attorney for a job well done, the fees may also act as an incentive to allow the conservatorship to continue for longer than necessary. While the court has oversight over the conservator’s actions, the oversight is limited in scope and relatively infrequent—general conservators are required to provide an account to the court one year after being appointed, but then only have to account once every two years thereafter.
“… Baby One More Time” – The Potential Rise of Conservatorships for Young Adults
Most intriguing about Ms. Spears’ conservatorship is that it remains intact after eight years, almost “Till the World Ends.” She can’t sign lucrative music deals, or more mundane contracts, without involving her father and Mr. Wallet. Of course, nothing stops her from contesting the conservatorship, but it appears she is reasonably content with the status quo. Only she knows why.
Here in Sacramento County, court staff reports a sharp rise in conservatorship filings in recent years. That is most likely due to an aging population with an increased incidence of dementia and other mental health issues. But as concerned family members look at struggles of young adults around them, and wonder how to help, conservatorship presents an option that allows increased control and influence over a young adult’s life. Of course, conservatorships are expensive and somewhat public in nature. But if Johnny welcomes a guiding hand, he may greatly benefit from the extra support, even if he is not a pop star.