A Lesson from Britney Spears’ Conservatorship
Giving family members authority over one’s finances can fray relationships.
Posted Sep 01, 2020
Mental illness impacts individuals across every walk of life — celebrities included. Many famous men and women have battled serious mental health issues, including the extremely high-profile case of Britney Spears. Since publicly decompensating more than 10 years ago, the 38-year old pop star has been subject to extensive tabloid reporting on her hospital stays, custody battles, and conservatorship. (Called guardianship in some states, conservatorship refers to court-ordered authority over the finances of a person unable to make their own decisions due to conditions of incapacity such as mental illness.)
Ms. Spears’ conservatorship has made recent news, with fans, fellow celebrities, and even the ACLU advocating that she be released from it, if she desires. Court filings showed that Ms. Spears “strongly opposed” her father resuming as her co-conservator, a role he served from 2008 until 2019. In late August, news circulated that this position would be filled by Ms. Spears’ younger sister Jamie Lynn, putting the 29-year old in control of Ms. Spears’ $57 million fortune, pending the approval of a judge.
Although it might seem reasonable, even preferable, to grant such authority to a trusted family member, it is not always the best decision. Serving as a conservator is a difficult and often thankless job, with coursework and ongoing reporting requirements. The role frequently necessitates restricting another’s spending as well as activities like driving and travel. It has the potential to create enormous friction between the conservator and the person for whom they’re responsible, sometimes irreparably damaging relationships. (Just note the issues that have surfaced between Ms. Spears and her father.)
As an attorney who specializes in helping families whose loved ones have serious mental health issues, I usually discourage family members from serving as conservators/guardians. By the time they’ve sought my help, they’ve often long served as caretakers to the detriment of their own mental health and family cohesiveness. In other words, they’re exhausted, burned out, and in need of outside help.
What’s more, family members who devote so much of themselves to their loved ones miss out on just being Mom or Dad, or a sister or brother. This represents a significant loss for all involved, including the person struggling with mental health issues. More than anything, these individuals need people they can turn to for unconditional love and support — a bond that can be easily compromised with the authority of conservatorship.
For families with financial means, it makes far more sense to bring in an independent conservator or guardian — someone who has been recommended by an attorney or clinician, who has experience working with people in similar age ranges with similar diagnoses, and who may be a good personality match. These professionals care deeply about the individuals for whom they’re responsible but can maintain a healthy emotional distance that is usually not possible for loved ones. While they’re compensated for their work, the courts oversee their fees.
It can be difficult for families to cede control to a third-party. Some simply can’t accept the idea of someone from “the outside” stepping into a decision-making role, even if it could significantly improve familial relationships.
I have no inside knowledge about the Spears’ conservatorship or family dynamics, nor would I divulge such details if I did. But it is clear her estate can afford to pay an independent conservator. Most families would be wiser to make this investment instead of potentially upending a relationship between two siblings.
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