February 1st, 2008, marks the precise date that then 26-year-old Britney Spears officially subsumed a new identity – not a singer, not an actor but a “conservatee.” Enshrined in Californian law, a conservatorship is commonly granted by a family law judge, who then selects a family member or licensed conservator (in Britney’s case her father Jamie Spears) to care for an adult deemed incapable of taking care of themselves and their finances.
For Britney, a slew of heavily publicised incidents, including shaving off her hair with clippers and admission into a psychiatric ward, gained her enough public scrutiny for Jamie Spears to be conferred conservator, essentially giving him lawful control over Britney’s entire life. Britney herself testifies to such conservatorship control, claiming that “anything that happened to me had to be approved by my dad…it’s embarrassing and demoralising.” Britney’s attitude is undoubtedly founded, particularly due to the financial exploitation that consumed much of her conservatorship as her father has, according to The New York Times, pocketed 2.95% of his daughter’s infamous Femme Fatale tour in 2011.
The lack of legal provision perpetuates this ‘conservatorship abuse’: when a conservator exploits their conservatee.
Controversial and unregulated, the application of conservatorships like Britney’s is plagued by a combination of legal failings and minimal state regulation. According to the Los Angeles Times, there are approximately 500 professional conservators in California, exercising legal authority over at least 4,600 adults. Yet, courts consistently fail to enforce appropriate action against predatory conservators, despite there being a significant population of conservatees.
In fact, The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) discovered that in 20 selected closed cases, conservators stole or otherwise improperly obtained $5.4 million in assets from 158 incapacitated victims, most of whom were elderly. This is in clear violation of Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which asserts that “States Parties shall recognize that persons with disabilities enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with others in all aspects of life.”
As well as this, in 6 out of the 20 examined cases, GAO found that courts failed to adequately screen potential guardians, employing individuals with prior criminal convictions. In 12 out of 20 cases, the courts further failed to oversee guardians once they were assigned, thus enabling “the abuse of vulnerable seniors and their assets to continue.”
This lack of legal enforcement is intrinsically prevalent in Britney’s case as evidenced by the 13 years it took for her conservatorship to definitively cease, so much so that it oversaw the birth of the social media movement #FreeBritney. Vilified as reaching “conspiracy theorists” in Jamie Spear’s words, the immeasurable success of #FreeBritney has led to equally immeasurable reform in the state of California, signifying a notable shift in the future of conservatorships in family law.
Assemblymember Evan Low implemented AB 1194, which, in summary, requires nonprofessional conservators, such as family members, to register as a professional. This would crucially enable them to receive training and introduce transparency within the system. From an economic perspective, AB 1194 enforces a civil penalty of up to $50,000 if the court perceives an abuse of authority by the conservator. They would then be able to annul the fiduciary’s license or registration.
However, entrusting these new laws to federal court systems that have consistently failed at protecting the rights of conservatees negates the aims of Assemblymember Low as activists like Rebecca Cokley argue that legislation primitively fails at “addressing underlying civil rights concerns.” Instead, she suggests employing the “supported decision-making” model where selected friends and family help make decisions while allowing the conservatee to maintain autonomy.
This opens up a discussion into the evident legal failings of conservatorships and perhaps signposts the end of them, particularly in the case of Britney Spears. There is certainly a long way for formal reform of the system, yet enquiries into the ethicality of it are being questioned and will continue to, hopefully bringing about a wave of change in the legacy of conservatorships.