Thirteen years ago Britney Spears, a young, immensely popular American rock star, was placed under conservatorship in California, a term roughly equivalent to guardianship in Pennsylvania, under the control of her father, Jamie Spears, for both her person and estate (finances). That arrangement has been modified somewhat over the years and her father lost some of his authority (just recently he filed to dissolve the conservatorship) while others have been appointed to serve in various capacities but the conservatorship has been the subject of litigation again in 2020 and until the present.
While it is difficult, without access to Court records, to assess what precisely is going on, press reports and uncontroverted factual evidence would lead most viewers to question how someone like Spears could be the subject of a guardianship. Observers might ask, for instance, “Isn’t that for elderly people with dementia?” On July 3, 2021, the New Yorker magazine published an article, “Britney Spears’s Conservatorship Nightmare,” https://www.newyorker.com/news/american-chronicles/britney-spears-conservatorship-nightmare, and noted that 39 year old Spears, since establishment of the conservatorship, had “released four albums, headlined a global tour that grossed a hundred and thirty-one million dollars, and performed for four years in a hit Las Vegas residency. Yet her conservators, who include her father, Jamie Spears, have controlled her spending, communications, and personal decisions…”
The article went on with a long history of events that, depending on perspective, could be seen either as justification for guardianship or opposition. The other question is whether her father is the appropriate party to serve, a position that she flatly rejected.
More information on the Britney Spears case is not lacking. The New York Times on April 15, 2021 released a video, “Framing Britney Spears,” https://www.nytimes.com/video/NYT-Presents/100000007712697/framing-britney-spears.html which is mostly a compilation of interviews. The case is noteworthy because the person who is involved is already famous. A “Free Britney” movement began.
The incidents that preceded the conservatorship as described in the New Yorker and other publications involved primarily Britney’s shaving her head, attacking the car owned by a paparazzi with her umbrella, and refusal to release her children to her ex-husband while under a Court order that granted him exclusive custody. Described in this way it is not inconceivable that the general public could regard these experiences as almost typical of “Hollywood” types and maybe not even unusual but then there is a question of judgment and the ability to express extreme (even if possibly justifiable) rage.
The Britney Spears case, aside from its public attention, raises questions when, under what conditions and how long should a guardianship last and, whether, even where it is found to be necessary initially, under what conditions should it continue and how much participation should be elicited from the person who is under guardianship. Can a person under guardianship assert rights? What mechanisms exist to allow her to do so? If the decisions that an alleged incapacitated person wants to make are harmful to that person how can that person nonetheless be validated? Consider, for instance, caregivers caring for elderly family members with dementia and the difficulty that entails to, at the same time, recognize irrational or extreme behavior as such but also think of the person under care.
Is there, or should there be some middle road between a power of attorney that assumes the person who gave it (the principle) is competent at least at the time it is given and guardianship that indicates she is not. Can a person be a “helper” without assuming the complicated and often tedious position of being a guardian with all the responsibilities that entails.
Finally, apart from the Britney case but maybe highlighted by it, there is an issue that we have never come to terms with within our legal and treatment systems and that is the separation of types of mental illness. The mental health system treats conditions such as depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and other similar conditions often with medication, sometimes also therapy. For drug related conditions there might be time spent in rehab. It is unusual for a young person like Britney to be under guardianship due to extreme behavior. There are older persons who always suffered from mental illness who can still develop dementia at a later age who can be difficult to place and very difficult to treat. With modern medicine it might be time to take a closer look at the entire system.
Esquire, Colliton Law Associates, P.C. Janet Colliton has practiced law for over 38 years, 37 of them in Chester County, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her practice, Colliton Law Associates, PC, is limited to elder law, Medicaid, including advice, applications and appeals, and other benefits planning including Veterans benefits, life care and special needs planning, guardianships, retirement, and estate planning and administration.