The Importance of Incapacity Planning Is Highlighted in Britney Spears’ Conservatorship—Part 2

October 7, 2021

Britney Spears burst onto the music scene at age 16 with her debut single, “…Hit Me Baby One More Time.” Since then, she has been one of the world’s most famous pop stars and beloved by many. Despite her massive success, she never truly had control over her own life.

Britney Spears is one of the most famous women in pop culture, but she’s been living under a conservatorship for 13 years now. Also known as “adult guardianships,” a conservatorship is a legal structure in which the court granted Britney’s father, Jaime Spears, and other individuals nearly complete control over her legal, financial, and personal decisions. It was initially established in February 2008 after she suffered a mental breakdown.

a photo of Britney Spears

Complete Loss of Control

The court-appointed Britney’s father, James, and her attorney Andrew Wallet to serve as her co-conservators in 2008 after determining that Britney lacked the mental capacity to look after herself. In October of that year, the conservatorship was extended to cover the rest of Britney’s life, and her father has remained in total charge of her affairs ever since.
Despite widespread rumors that Britney’s conservatorship was abusive, the specifics of Britney’s conservatorship remain a closely guarded family secret. Moreover, until very recently, Britney had never spoken publicly about her life under the arrangement.

Endured Years Of Abuse And Exploitation

As we detailed last week in part one, Britney recently testified in court, describing a terrible pattern of abuse and exploitation at the hands of her father and others engaged in the conservatorship. We also discussed how confidential court records obtained by the New York Times supported Britney’s claims, revealing that the pop icon expressed strong opposition to her conservatorship as early as 2014 and unsuccessfully sought to have her father removed from his position on multiple occasions.

Britney’s father categorically denied any wrongdoing, and his attorneys asked the court to investigate Britney’s allegations of abuse. Shortly after the hearing, both Britney’s court-appointed lawyer, Samuel Ingham, and Bessemer Trust, the wealth management company that had previously agreed to serve as the pop star’s co-conservator, petitioned the court to be removed from the conservatorship. Judge Brenda Penny approved the resignation of Ingham and Bessemer Trust and granted Britney’s desire to employ her own lawyer during a subsequent court hearing on July 14th. Britney chose Mathew Rosengart, a prominent Hollywood litigator and former federal prosecutor.

During the hearing, Britney again requested that the court remove her father as co-conservator, and urged that her father should be prosecuted for his abuse of her. But Britney, as she had done before, refused to undergo any additional mental-health evaluations, which she referred to as “stupid psych tests,” according to a report by NPR. “I’m not willing to sit with anybody at this point to be evaluated,” Britney said. “I want to press charges for abuse. Instead of investigating my capacity, I want an investigation on my dad.”

On September 29, 2021, the court granted Britney’s request and removed her father as her Conservator. But the court also appointed two new conservators over Britney. So although the removal of her father as conservator was a significant victory for her, she continues to fight to end the conservatorship completely.

Avoid Britney’s Fate By Using Estate Planning

One big issue that remains as Britney tries to end the conservatorship is her refusal to undergo further psychiatric evaluation. While the court may allow Britney to terminate the conservatorship without having to go through another psychiatric evaluation, the most unfortunate thing about the process is that it all could have been avoided. Britney might have avoided her father’s control by making a proper estate plan early in her adult life. Britney could have created legally binding instructions stipulating how her assets and personal care should be managed during her incapacity using a variety of estate planning vehicles. In addition to naming the person or persons who would be in charge of making decisions on her behalf while she was incapacitated. Britney could have spelled out the specific conditions – including whether and the kind of psychiatric evaluations that would be required – under which she’d be declared incapacitated if she’d done the right planning.

So what can you do to make sure you and your family don’t end up like Britney?

Where To Begin When Planning For Incapacity

Before making any plans for the possibility of your potential incapacity, think about who you would want to make decisions for you if you become incapacitated. To be more specific, you’ll get to select the person or people you wish to handle your medical, financial, and legal affairs while you’re recovering or until your death. Whatever you do, don’t forget that you must make a choice. Just as with Britney, the court will appoint someone to make these decisions in your absence if you don’t name them legally. It’s at this point that things can get really tough for you and your family.

In the absence of estate planning, the court will normally appoint a conservator or guardian to make financial and legal choices on your behalf if you become incapacitated. State regulations vary. While Britney Spears was a well-known example, this individual could also be a family member you’d rather not have in control of your affairs, a professional guardian who charges exorbitant fees, or even a crooked professional guardian who abuses and exploits you for their own financial gain. The process of naming a guardian, like most court hearings, may be time-consuming, expensive, and emotionally taxing for your family and assuming, of course, that everyone in your family agrees on what’s best for you. Disagreements among family members concerning your medical treatment or financial management could result in ugly legal battles.

Disputes of this nature can separate your family and drain your estate’s assets. Consider the case of Florida’s Terry Schiavo, a 26-year-old woman who suffered a heart attack and was left in a vegetative condition for 15 years. Schiavo’s young husband fought Terry’s parents in court for more than a decade for permission to remove her from life support before she was finally allowed to pass away. Terry had no living will or health care directive indicating in writing how she wanted medical decisions made for her in such an event.

Complete Plan For Incapacity

Estate planning can help you avoid all this stress. Estate planning options for granting and guiding this decision-making authority are entirely dependent on your personal circumstances. It’s important to talk to an experienced lawyer before making a final decision because there are many factors to consider beyond whether or not to “pull the plug.” You will want to consider things like: handling pregnancy-related issues, whether to continue providing hydration and nutrition, and how to determine incapacity. Most advanced health care directives fail to take these and other considerations into account.

May people don’t reealize this one estate planning tool that is completely useless if you become incapacitated: a will. Having a will does nothing to keep your family out of court or out of conflict if you become incapacitated, as it only comes into force upon your death and determines how your assets should be allocated. Instead of relying on a single document to create your incapacity strategy, use several different planning tools. Your plan should include some, or all, of the following:

a. Durable financial power of attorney:

To give someone immediate authority to make decisions about your financial, business, and legal concerns and describe how your affairs should be handled, you need a durable power of attorney.

b. Revocable living trust:

In the case of your incapacity, a living trust can immediately transfer control of your assets held by the trust to a person you choose. The trust can include legally binding instructions for how your assets should be managed, and the document can even spell out specific conditions that must be met for you to be deemed incapacitated.

c. Medical power of attorney:

This type of advance directive gives a person you choose the immediate legal authority to make medical treatment decisions should you become incapacitated.

d. Living will:

A type of advance directive specifies how medical decisions should be made for you if you become incapacitated, including who should be able to see you and how you want your medical care to be handled. Some people combine a medical power of attorney with a living will into a single document to save time and money.

Documents Alone Are Not Enough

One thing to keep in mind about all of these documents is that they are just documents and do not provide your loved ones with a trusted advisor, often needed to deal with all possible outcomes and to navigate the legal system on your behalf. No amount of paperwork will keep your family out of court and conflict, so you can not just rely on documents to do it. When incapacity or death strikes, you will want to have worked with a lawyer dedicated to more than just providing documents to you. You will have wanted a lawyer who got to know you and your wishes and will be by your side through all of life’s stages, and be by your family’s side when you can’t. You should make sure your loved ones are aware of your plans and understand their part in them in addition to the above estate planning documents. Your lawyer should be willing to hold a family meeting with all of the individuals impacted by your plan. YOur lawyer, as part of developing your plan, should include walking your family through your plan, explaining the reasoning behind your decisions and what they need to do if something happens to you.

Ultimately, you’ll find that the finest protection comes from combining your comprehensive incapacity plan with a group of individuals who will look after you, can keep an eye on you, and know exactly what to do if disaster hits. In doing so, it would make it virtually impossible for a conservator or legal guardian ever to be appointed—or even need to be appointed—against your wishes. Instead, the right lawyer for you would create a robust plan that would allow you to stipulate how your life, healthcare, and assets should be managed if you ever become unable to manage them yourself.

Everything Relies on Timing

Your incapacity plan must be created and prepared well before you become incapacitated. Even a slight level of mental illness or dementia could get them thrown out of court. Therefore, you must clearly express your wishes and consent for planning documents to be valid. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, an unforeseen accident or illness can occur at any time, regardless of your age, so don’t delay—contact us immediately to get your incapacity plan started. Finally, you must review and update your estate plan frequently to stay up with changes in your life, family relationships, and the law. If any of the people you’ve named become unable or unwilling to serve for any reason, you’ll need to adjust your plan, and we can help with that as well.

Take A Lesson From Britney Spears’ Story

Britney’s story is certainly tragic, and it will be fascinating to see how she ultimately does. But her case has already inspired lawmakers at the state and federal levels for increased oversight in adult guardianships, which could help other people going through what Britney did with their loved one or family member due to conservatorship rights being abused.

According to a Massachusetts congresswoman who told Politico, “If this could happen to someone who is as famous as Britney Spears, I mean, think about what’s happening to regular Americans. We need to pull back the curtain on this, “said Rep. Lori Trahan. Likewise, Britney’s story should serve as motivation for you to ensure that you and your family members have estate planning plans in place to avoid the loss of autonomy, family conflict, and potential for abuse associated with court-ordered conservatorships and guardianships.

This article is a service of Greg Gordillo, Personal Family Lawyer™. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by scheduling a Family Wealth Planning Session via our online scheduler and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

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