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Britney Spears Case Puts Spotlight on California Conservatorships

The public scrutiny of Britney Spears’ 13-year conservatorship, which intensified with the release of a New York Times documentary in early 2021, may prompt California lawmakers to take action to bring some clarity a somewhat mysterious area of law. 

Conservatorships are established by courts for people deemed unable to make their own decisions, such as those suffering from dementia or other mental illnesses. The documentary, called “Framing Britney Spears,” questions how the singer was able to perform and make millions of dollars even as the legal system designated her unable to manage her own financial and personal life.

The conservatorship, which began in 2008 following Spears’ well-publicized emotional breakdown, consists of two parts: one for her financial affairs and one for her personal care. Her father initially controlled both parts. Today, her father no longer acts as personal conservator but he still controls her financial affairs. Spears is currently in court seeking to have her father removed and replaced. She is not contesting the conservatorship itself.

The documentary, coupled with a long-running #FreeBritney campaign online, has prompted California legislators to propose bills that would alter the conservatorship system by requiring added qualifications for conservators and providing remedies for special circumstances such as those in the Spears case. Assemblyman Evan Low of San Jose said that “Framing Britney Spears” highlighted “some of the worst aspects of the system and the fact that it does not always protect individuals like her,” and he added that it is time to “pull back the curtain on conservatorships in California.”

Low has introduced Assembly Bill 1194, which would require appointed conservators — except those who are licensed professionals — to receive 10 hours of training on financial abuse. Nonprofessional conservators, like Spears’ father, would also have to register with the Professional Fiduciaries Bureau, the state’s oversight body, if the conservatee’s estate is $1 million or more. The bureau would be empowered to suspend or revoke the conservator’s license and to impose fines of up to $50,000 if he or she is found not to have acted in the best interests of the conservatee. The bill would also prevent conservators from hiring as contractors any business entities in which they have an interest. 

Also in response to the documentary, State Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) has introduced Senate Bill 724, which would ensure that the person under conservatorship has the right to choose their own lawyer. Spears was required to use a court-appointed attorney, as are many other conservatees.

The attention that the Spears case has garnered promises to bring significant changes to conservatorship practice in California. That makes it all the more important to choose a seasoned professional for both creation and management of these sensitive and sometimes complex arrangements.

The Sterling Law Group, with offices in Sacramento and Roseville, handles conservatorship issues for clients throughout Central California. If you have questions about how to protect a vulnerable loved one, please call 916-790-9202 or contact us online to arrange an attorney consultation.

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