I am a trusts and estates attorney, John Gracia of Sparks Law (https://sparkslawpractice.com/). As a new documentary was recently released on FX and HULU titled “Framing Britney Spears”, the issue with Britney Spears’ conservatorship and the #FreeBritney movement has resurfaced, grabbing the attention of many. The legal battle over her conservatorship currently allows her father to control her finances, profession, and her personal life and relationships.
Here is my proof (https://www.facebook.com/SparksLawPractice/posts/3729584280457291), a recent article from NYTimes.com about Britney Spears conservatorship, and an overview on trusts and estates.
The purpose of this Ask Me Anything is to discuss how conservatorships work. My responses should not be taken as legal advice.
Mr. Gracia will be available at 12:00PM - 1:00PM today, Thursday, March 4th to answer questions.
Do you believe there should be a process by which a person can dissolve a conservatorship? I can't wrap my head around the idea this woman is considered so mentally ill and incapable of running her own life, and yet she is being pushed to continue performing on a scale that would be crippling to the average person. At what point should someone step in and say if Brittany can handle all these shows and work she should be given a chance?
Absolutely. She is free to petition the court to have her rights restored, though it may be difficult. She would need to show that she now has sufficient capacity to make or communicate responsible decisions concerning the management of her property. The goal of conservatorships (at least here in Georgia) is to encourage development of maximum self-reliance and independence. It's doable, but she would likely need medical evaluations and testimony from independent third parties demonstrating her ability to manage her affairs.
What can families do to prevent predatory conservatorship situations, where an interested party (lawyer, friend, family member) is trying to take control over someone's life and finances, seemingly without merit?
Btw, for those wanting more programming about this: the Netflix movie "I Care A Lot" is about this issue, and John Oliver did an episode on Guardianship a couple of years ago.
Well, the conservatorship doesn't just magically appear - it must be proven that one is needed before one is named. But if there are doubts about a family member's motivation...I would recommend an independent third party who has NOTHING to gain as a conservator - like a financial institution, or even a court-appointed conservator
How does payment for conservatorships work? It makes sense that the conservator would need to get some form of compensation for their time and expenses, but who decides what is fair? Thank you for your time!
Agreed! Here in Georgia, there are statutory fees of "2.5% on all sums of money by the conservator on account of the estate; and 2.5% on all sums paid out by the conservator," plus additional commissions for interest earned during the conservatorship. Obviously that amounts to significant compensation for an estate of $60 million! For anything additional, the court has discretion to approve or deny a "raise," if you will, and will take into account management duties with respect to a conservator's business. Here, the "hybrid business" comment certainly raised some eyebrows!
Keep in mind that a conservator is required to furnish annual inventories and reports to the court, so there are some checks and balances along the way to ensure that compensation is not unreasonable.
How common are conservatorships in your experience? Is Britney's case an outlier or more common than people might think?
Thank you for answering!
Definitely an outlier. I usually see them with elderly people or minors who receive a large sum of money - designed to protect them from exploitation.
What are the odds of Britney winning and removing this conservatorship? Personally I find the whole idea of conservatorship very taboo and unethical.
Edit: I just want to clarify that I understand the need for guardianship for the ill and infirm. My SO works in a human services field where this kind of thing is extremely prominent and very much needed. I guess I find it unethical to continue a conservatorship despite being (from most reports) mentally sound.
I find it notable that she has not attempted to have her rights fully restored, but has instead offered an additional independent co-conservator (Bessemer Trust I believe?) to serve alongside her father. However, I believe it can be achieved, but only if the then-serving conservators support her decision. Generally speaking, conservators are a great resource to prevent undue influence in the context of elder abuse, so I don't know that I would consider them (on the whole) unethical. This one is certainly a little unique, and without knowing all of the facts, it's difficult to make an assessment. I do hope she'll one day be free to make these decisions on her own.
How do you remove a conservatorship?
Petition the court for the conservator's removal. You'd need an evaluation from a doctor, social worker, or pyschiatrist, and a demonstration that you are independently capable of making significant decisions regarding your property. Not easy by any means, especially if the conservator has shown that he or she has brought stability and has not wasted estate assets.
Since you have deeper knowledge of the topic compared to the average person, what is your view of this particular situation (Britney vs her father)? Do you think the conservatorship is justified in this case? How do you predict the story ending?
I think the facts giving rise to the conservatorship (back in 2008) warranted a conservatorship. Is it still necessary all these years later? Maybe. I wish I could predict how it will end, but a lot of it depends on her, in my opinion.
Are there good statistics on how often conservatorships are sought and granted for men vs women? Basically asking if there is evidence of sexism in the way these are applied.
I've never looked at it from this perspective, but that would be interesting to see the results.
I do not believe she should ever have been put in to a conservatorship... she should have been given appropriate help and support...
Having said that - these are Qs about Britney specifically but also interested in how the system works in general.
How would Britney have been assessed in terms of her capabilities and mental state when the conservatorship was applied for?
What safeguards are required to prevent conflict of interests from people handling her money?
What form of continuing assessment would she have? Would a social worker or medical professional review her mental state and capabilities at any point?
Do the terms of the conservatorship change over time to reflect individual needs or is it fixed once instated?
Is a social worker or other professional involved in oversight and to advocate for her?
From what I understand she was put in to a conservative type that is normally used for older people ? Is this true? If so why did that happen?
A lot to unpack, but you're on the right track. At both the time of establishment and the time of (potentially) ending it, she would need an evaluation. If she were to petition to have it removed, a social worker or physician could advocate for its removal. Regarding conflicts of interest, a conservator is required to furnish annual reports and inventories of property to the court (or else they don't get paid) - so it acts as a check on their authority to a certain extent.
Can someone other that next of kin, say romantic partner, or friend, appeal/assist to dissolve a conservatorship?
Good question. In Georgia, any interested person can petition the court for removal of a conservator.
I used to work with estates and trust accounts. By far the most interesting client I had was an only child who killed his parents. He inherited like 7 million, but was living in a penitentiary for the rest of his life. He would call every few months asking for 50 bucks for the commissary and would ask if that was enough. Messed up situation in my opinion. This huge account pretty much just existed to put money in the bank's pocket...but I digress.
Do you have any particularly interesting or crazy cases that you can share? Perhaps change the specifics enough to protect the innocent.
Oh yeah...I have some very good stories
What is your opinion on the conservatorship of Spears' estate. Does the uproar have merit? Or are people just upset that one of their favourite celebs has been declared unfit to manage their own money?
A little of both, I think. It's definitely unique to have a (soon to be) 40 year old worth $60 mil not being able to manage her finances on her own; however, I also think that the conservatorship was in her best interests at the time it was established.
Is there a yearly review to determine if the conservatorship is still needed? Like a psychologist reviews the individual and provides a recommendation.
Not that I am aware of; however, the conservator must supply annual reports to the court to show how the conservatee's property has been managed. An evaluation would be required if a conservatee is seeking to end the conservatorship
How would a conservatorship such as one in the Britney case be instated in the first place when she is a legal adult?
Upon a showing that she lacked capacity to make significant responsible decisions concerning the management of her property.
Could she replace her leeching father with another conservator? One she actually trusts, a friend perhaps?
Absolutely, and I believe that is where this is headed. She has succesfully petitioned to have a bank act as his co-conservator.
How does someone prove they are mentally capable to take charge of their life independently after being deemed unfit?
Thanks for your time!
Thanks for your question! Here in Georgia, a report from a social worker, psychiatrist, or physician must accompany a petition to have a conservatee's rights restored. At a subsequent hearing, an attorney would want to provide testimony from persons who have observed the conservatee's progression from the time of the order for the conservatorship until the present day. The court should also appoint an independent attorney to review the case.
What has been your experience with conservatorships ending? In the documentary, they ask this question or similar and the person said it's essentially unheard of.
I'm glad you asked, because when she mentioned that had never seen one end, I was a little surprised. It can happen, and I have personally been on the good side of seing one being terminated. The facts were vastly different than Britney's case, of course, but essentially I had to demonstrate that the conservatee (aka the "ward" here in Ga) had significantly improved his life from the time the conservatorship was established, and was now fully capable of managing his own affairs, both physically and financially. It certainly helped that the conservator fully supported his position, so there was very little resistance from her, the court, or the court-appointed attorney that evaluated the case. It was a very happy ending all the way around.
Do you have any advice on distinguishing conservatorships from trusts and other similar financial arrangements which are more empowering?
I'm on the autism spectrum and my parents are arranging some sort of trust on my behalf, but I don't want it to restrict me, as stories about disabled people having conservatorships forced upon them scare me. I suspect the trust is a hypothetical one for when they die, however, and that's honestly not something I seriously want to think about, but if I find myself in a position where my parents aren't available to consult in person, I don't want to find some lawyer I don't know vouching on my behalf if they go against my own or legitimate best interests.
A trust can limit what (e.g., education) or when (e.g., at age 40) the trust funds can be spent, but as opposed to a conservatorship, it does not restrict your ability to enter into legal contracts, or to purchase property with funds that you may possess outside of the trust.