Is It Time to #FreeBritney?

What is a probate conservatorship, anyway?

Posted Sep 21, 2019

Over the past year, questions about the necessity of the conservatorship of Ms. Britney Spears have prompted speculation regarding the unusual aspects of this case.

Ms. Spears has been under a court-ordered conservatorship since 2008 for an unstated mental health issue and alleged substance abuse issues. Prior to that she had demonstrated a very public decline in her well being which ended with two 5150 holds (involuntary psychiatric hospitalization). While there are many indications that Ms. Spears needed supports at that time, what is unusual is the court processes that provided that supports. In California, there are a number of different types of conservatorships, sometimes called guardianships in other states. Typically individuals presenting primarily with mental health type symptoms are considered for a LPS or mental health conservatorship.  Individuals with neurocognitive disorders or dementia are more likely to be referred for probate conservatorships. 

What is a probate conservatorship? Typically, a probate conservatorship in California is designed to protect individuals who can no longer act in their own best interest. And even at that point, a conservatorship is viewed as a last resort. Informal supports, such as the use of fiduciaries and in-home supports, are advocated to enhance the autonomy of the client before consideration of formal supports, like guardianship or conservatorship, are considered. 

The typical probate client is an elderly individual with a dementia syndrome who has been able to manage their affairs in the past, but now is declining cognitively and functionally. In the current matter, there are many odd elements to consider. For example, in this case, the age of the client, the nature of the alleged symptoms, and the functional abilities are different from the typical probate conservatee.  By all accounts, Ms. Spears successfully reentered public life following 2008 with very successful stints as a performer in Las Vegas. 

LA Times / Getty ImagesSpears in 2011
Source: LA Times / Getty Images

What makes this case a potential fit for the probate versus other options is that the probate courts are more familiar with the risk of financial exploitation and undue influence. The case exemplifies the tensions of supporting and protecting vulnerable individuals who may not clearly fit into one category or another but demonstrates considerable risk nonetheless.

Readers, please note I have never met nor examined Ms. Britney Spears, and these comments are based on publicly available information as well as my own experience in the probate court system in Los Angeles.