International pop star Britney Spears’ controversial conservatorship gained a lot of heat in the news and on social media, with people protesting and demanding to “#FreeBritney.” Fans, activists, and Spears herself labeled the original version of the conservatorship to be abusive because of the way the singer’s father, Jamie Spears used to control her and her multimillion-dollar state.
In light of this, conservatorships as entities have been scrutinized but most people under conservatorship are not highly-publicized multimillionaires.
In California, a conservatorship is a court case in which a person called the conservator is assigned to take care of another adult after it is decided that the latter cannot take care of themselves or their finances. A person under a conservatorship is a conservatee.
“It’s more about being able to take care of somebody who doesn’t have the capacity,” said Yolande Erickson who works for the Conservatorship Program Attorney at Bet Tzedek, an organization that provides free legal services to low-income people in Los Angeles County.
“I think that’s why most families want it, (and) think they need to have the right to make medical decisions for their loved ones, regardless of the age of the person,” said Erickson.
In the U.S., there are 1.3 million people under a conservatorship, and the court oversees at least $50 billion in assets at a national level, according to the National Council on Disability (NCD).
Outside of California, these court cases are known as guardianships.
“At its heart, conservatorship is a disability rights issue because the court doesn’t conserve anyone who isn’t disabled in some way,” said Shannon Cogan, Acting Director for the Office of Clients’ Rights Advocacy in Disability Rights California.
“Most people who have disabilities of all kinds, they rely on public benefits. There isn’t a lot of money or any money at issue. It’s more about who’s making your personal decisions, who has the ability to exercise your civil rights for you. And a lot of times people think they’re doing the right thing,” explained Cogan.
While conservatorships have received criticism because of the terms of Spear’s case, many advocate for them and stress their perks.
Erickson, for example, shares how this is a procedure that helps some immigrant families. She explains cases where people don’t have access to services to take care of a family member with a disability in their native countries, so they come to California.
The probate court in Los Angeles does not take into consideration whether a family is undocumented.
“They just want somebody to be able to take care of their loved one,” said Erickson, explaining that nevertheless services can be limited because of immigration status. “It’s very powerful for people to have that kind of voice and have the obligation and the right to try to get services.”
“It’s a powerful tool for families who are used to staying in the shadows and not advocating openly for help for their family members that need them,” said Erickson.
However, there aren’t many ways to analyze who are the people under a conservatorship. According to Cogan, there is limited information on the race or socioeconomic status of those under a conservatorship.
“I wish that we knew. There’s really very little data. It’s not, there’s no sort of universal way to capture data. There is no required reporting on those sorts of characteristics,” said Cogan.
Trends are difficult to distinguish even in available data because they aren’t fully updated and the counts for many years are missing. The National Council on Disability tracks conservatorship numbers by state. Their 2019 report shows data from the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services and Human Services Research Institute. The most recent year of this database is 2015-16, and it starts from 2008-09. Even then, California’s statistics are only present for the 2009-10, 2011-12, and 2015-16 ranges.
According to the data (page 99), 31% of respondents had guardianship in some capacity in 2015-16. It was a major jump from 16% of the same in 2009-10.
Spear’s case has brought a general questioning of the integrity of conservatorships, while some argue that they are necessary to protect people with disabilities others have concerns about them.
In 2018 the NCD published the report, “Beyond Guardianship: Toward Alternatives That Promote Greater Self-Determination for People with Disabilities,” the report criticized conservatorships in the U.S. Some of the points mentioned were, the denial of consideration of less limiting measures, misconceptions about one’s own ability to make decisions, the lack of court oversight, and lack of federal and state-wide data on conservatorships.
“There are some safeguards there, but there are also ways to abuse that. And you know, whatever money’s involved that can be a temptation for people. But the other thing that you do have sometimes are family members involved, sometimes there’s contention among family members about (whether) the estate, is the person being managed correctly,” said Kate Wilber, a Professor of Gerontology at the University of Southern California, an expert in elder abuse and caregiving.
Wilber says that this represents some issues when it comes to older adults. For example, if older adult has dementia they may not be able to recognize their problems.
“(A) third reason is the conservatorship makes an adult have the legal status of a minor child. They can’t make decisions on their own behalf. They can’t buy and sell assets and property and get married and a variety of things. And so they can’t hire a lawyer to get out of a conservatorship,” said Wilber. “That’s the other side of it because they are like a child in terms of their legal rights. Now there (is) a big push to have more limited conservatorship where people could get married if they wanted to or vote or something, but often conservatorship circle plenary, which means that the decision making the adult has is taken away.”
Currently, not everyone is eligible for a limited conservatorship. A limited conservatorship is when a judge only gives certain rights to the conservator to take care of another adult with a developmental disability (DD).
Still, others argue there are other ways to help.
“A conservatorship isn’t the only way to help someone make decisions about their life,” said Cogan.
She said, for example, that one could execute a durable power of attorney for finances or education.
Spears’ case highlighted that though her specific conservatorship case is more complicated than average, the legal institution has shades of gray.
There are some abuse protections in conservatorships. Some of these undergo a court process, like when it is determined whether a conservatorship is appropriate or necessary. After which, if a conservatorship is put in place, the private investigator’s office should continue to make sure that a conservatorship it’s appropriate, according to Erickson.
“I don’t see a lot of abuse in my cases, because as I said, it’s generally a family member that’s from caring for this person their whole life and in terms of the limited conservatorship,” said Erickson. “The majority of the cases that I see are just people trying to take care of loved ones who no longer have capacity or who never had to care for themselves once they become an adult or as they age and lose capacity. That’s the majority of conservatorships in Los Angeles County.”