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A rally for Britney Spears is held at the Lincoln Memorial July 14, 2021, in Washington. Fans have called attention to Ms. Spears’ lack of autonomy with the #FreeBritney movement.

The Britney effect: Conservatorships get scrutiny

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After years of online advocacy and pink placard protests to #FreeBritney, supporters of the pop star heard her own testimony in court this past June. Britney Spears made a case to end a conservatorship that she says is traumatizing in its control over her life. On Thursday, her dad, Jamie Spears, agreed to step aside, ahead of a hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court on Sept. 29.

The case is emblematic of an “outdated” yet prevalent approach that is akin to a light switch, says Jan Costello, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University. “It’s all or nothing, on or off,” she says. “They’re either competent, so they get to do everything, or they’re totally incompetent, so they don’t get to do anything.”

Nina Kohn, a law professor at Syracuse University, views the solution as largely legislative. “Seeing this happen to somebody [like] Ms. Spears really helps people understand how this arrangement can go wrong and why we need to be looking at our laws to figure out how we can make sure this doesn’t happen to other people.”

Why We Wrote This

While Britney Spears says her own conservatorship is abusive, the legal device has long been criticized for facilitating elder abuse and undercutting disability rights.

Pop star Britney Spears made headlines when she spoke out against the legal authority her father wields over her finances and personal affairs in June, after 13 years of near-silence on the matter. Ms. Spears called her court-appointed conservatorship “abusive” and asked a judge to terminate the arrangement. Although the conservatorship remains in place, on Thursday, her father, Jamie Spears, agreed to step aside as conservator. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 29 in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Her comments, which she reiterated in a July 14 court hearing, have shined a new light on conservatorships, reinvigorating long-standing calls for legal reform.

What are conservatorships, and is Ms. Spears’ typical?

Why We Wrote This

While Britney Spears says her own conservatorship is abusive, the legal device has long been criticized for facilitating elder abuse and undercutting disability rights.

Conservatorships, sometimes referred to as guardianships, involve the appointment of a legal guardian who manages a person’s finances, personal needs, or both. Typically, they are approved by court order after a person is found incompetent to manage their own affairs, such as a person diagnosed with dementia or with developmental disabilities.

Such arrangements are only supposed to be granted as a “last resort,” says Nina Kohn, a professor at Syracuse University who specializes in elder law. However, Ms. Kohn notes that courts often grant conservatorships without exploring all other options.

“Nobody should be subject to guardianship or conservatorship unless there is no other way to meet their needs,” she says. “For many individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their needs can be met without stripping them of any legal rights.”

That is part of why Ms. Spears’ conservatorship is so atypical, Ms. Kohn adds: She is “able to clearly articulate her wishes and what she wants to happen in her life.”

Are conservatorships normally so controversial?

Scrutiny over conservatorships is not new. The legal device has been criticized for facilitating elder abuse and undercutting disability rights, and has prompted the introduction of legislation meant to improve oversight in recent years.

For Jan Costello, a professor at Loyola Marymount University who specializes in mental health law, Ms. Spears’ case is emblematic of an “outdated” yet prevalent approach to conservatorships that she likens to a light switch. “It’s all or nothing, on or off,” she says. “They’re either competent, so they get to do everything, or they’re totally incompetent, so they don’t get to do anything.”

While there are less restrictive legal tools that allow disabled individuals to maintain almost full autonomy over their choices, like limited conservatorships or supported decision-making, they’re often glossed over in favor of full conservatorships, Ms. Costello notes. She believes that states need to more thoroughly investigate whether conservatorships are needed before approving them.

Ms. Kohn sees the solution as largely legislative. That includes an act that she co-drafted with the Uniform Law Commission, with changes ranging from enhanced procedural rights for conservatees – including the right to choose their own lawyer – to a simpler process for terminating conservatorships. So far, Washington and Maine have enacted the model law.

How does Ms. Spears’ case change the conversation?

Several prominent figures, including federal politicians and other celebrities, have voiced support for Ms. Spears and pushed for more significant changes after her testimonies. A new bipartisan bill that would give conservatees more control is now advancing through Congress.

“The publicity that Britney’s case has gotten has made a lot of people go, ‘Oh, I didn’t understand about conservatorships and guardianships; I had no idea that it was that extreme or could be that extreme,’” says Ms. Costello.

Some worry that the outcry against conservatorships will start and end with Ms. Spears, leaving the desired reforms unfinished.

But both Ms. Costello and Ms. Kohn are “cautiously optimistic.”

“Seeing this happen to somebody [like] Ms. Spears really helps people understand how this arrangement can go wrong and why we need to be looking at our laws to figure out how we can make sure this doesn’t happen to other people,” says Ms. Kohn.

“But there’s always a risk that this will be looked at as just bad people misbehaving, and that we won’t focus on the underlying incentives in the systems that make bad behavior possible,” she says.

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