The Face of Conservatorship is a 39-Year Old Pop Star: Is It Time to #FreeBritney?
A typical conservatee is a female nursing home resident between the ages of 76-81 with a low to moderate income.
America’s most famous conservatee is a 39-year-old female pop star who lives on a 21-acre estate, has sold 100 million albums, and has a net worth of $65 million.
Britney Spears has been in a conservatorship since 2008, when her mental health and substance abuse issues dominated the headlines. Under this legal structure, Britney’s father, Jamie, makes her personal, economic and health decisions for her.
The mother of two has publicly expressed her desire to have a third child, but she cannot remove her contraceptive without her father’s permission under the conservatorship. Only recently has she been allowed to drive her own car and a judge approved her request to hire her own attorney last week. She has demanded that her father be investigated for conservatorship abuse and taken to her Instagram account to explain her side of the story.
Is this normal under a conservatorship or has the issue been misframed in the press?
Elizabeth A. Adinolfi (Phillips Nizer) separated the fact from fiction on the CLE webinar, “Conservatorship: What If Britney Spears Resided In New York State? What New York Lawyers Should Know.”
Adinolfi acknowledged that there has been “so much noise” in the last few years regarding guardianships and conservatorships.
She cited the New Yorker article, “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights” as a watershed moment, followed by John Oliver’s viral clip on guardianship, that piqued the public interest in conservatorships.
She recalled getting panicked messages from friends: Could this happen to my parents?, Could this happen to me?, and, worst of all, Is this what you do?
“I tried to assuage their fears and explain that New York has far more robust protections than other states: court appointed counsel, neutral court evaluators, mandatory notice requirements, etc.,” said Adinolfi.
Adinolfi explained that to be under a guardianship in New York, you have to lack capacity or be likely to suffer harm. “It is for people who cannot adequately understand consequences or their limitations.”
In New York, anyone can petition to put someone under guardianship, be it a family member or even a concerned neighbor.
She said that there are similarities between California and New York’s programs including annual reports/filings and that the ward/conservatee may apply to end their guardianship at any time.
As for differences, she explained that California relies heavily on medical opinions, while New York tends to prohibit them. “In most cases, the focus is not on diagnosis, but functional limitations.”
California statutes also tend to be very specific such as the right to vote, marry, and involuntary sterilization.
She documented Spears’ issues over the years including shaving her head, attacking the paparazzi with an umbrella, and losing custody of her children. Her then-manager and boyfriend, Sam Lufti, was accused of drugging her. The confluence of issues led to the initial conservatorship in California.
Spears publicly spoke in court on June 23 about her conservatorship. It was widely circulated that Spears claimed she cannot remove her intra-uterine device to prevent pregnancy without her father’s permission. In New York and California, a guardian can have a ward use long acting, reversible contraception. In California, sterilization of a ward requires a very high showing before a court will permit it. Adinolfi acknowledged that the Spears case is different than most because “most conservatees are past reproductive age.”
Adinolfi questioned if there’s more to the story be it Spears’ rumored history of postpartum depression or if her medications are not safe to take during pregnancy. It was reported in 2019 that Spears’ psychoactive medications stopped working, which culminated in another stay at rehab.
“Drug addiction and guardianship is really. really hard,” said Adinolfi. “Courts can’t enforce rehab. Most likely it is a financial guardianship to ensure money is not going towards drugs.”
“If someone cannot get out of a guardianship, that’s a sign that you still might need one,” said Adinolfi.
While guardianship abuse can and does happen, more abuse happens when people do not have a guardian. It is typically financial, but can also involve neglect and physical harm, even isolation in some circumstances.
“I do not think the public sees what is happening to the people who come in to the court when we ask for guardianships,” she said.
In guardianship cases involving mental illness, Adinolfi advises against jury trials. “I would not expect a jury to necessarily understand someone who is eccentric, unusual, belligerent. I have more faith in judges’ abilities to say if that is how she wants to live her life, ok.”
Would more public hearings help or is it in the best interest to close courts to protect the vulnerable?
Closing the courts only leads to the spread of inaccurate and incomplete information, and Britney Spears is the prime example, said Adinolfi.
With the pandemic exacerbating mental health crises for people and psychological damage for COVID-19 long haulers, Adinolfi expects to see more guardianship proceedings in the near future.