As many of us spent the Fall of 2021 refreshing our newsfeeds with bated breath to see if one of the nation’s most cherished pop stars would be freed from a strange legal arrangement that gave her father control over her finances, career, body, and all decisions made therein, much of America was just beginning to become aware of the dangers of something disability advocates had been sounding the alarm on for years: the conservatorship.
A conservatorship is a legal arrangement in which a guardian (“conservator”) is court-appointed to manage the financial and sometimes personal affairs of another person due to physical or mental limitations, often due to age-related dementia. The legal scope of the conservatorship may be only over the "estate” of the conservatee but the scope may extend to the "person,” in which case the conservator is granted legal reign over most aspects of the conservatee’s life.
In the case of Britney Spears, her father Jamie was granted legal conservatorship over both in 2008. For Britney, this meant that her father controlled not just her finances, but where and how she lived, whom she saw, and all healthcare decisions including her reproductive choices. Under the conservatorship, Britney received an inordinately small monthly allowance of her own money, was not allowed to drive, was not allowed to marry or get engaged, and was not allowed to remove an IUD which she no longer desired. Ms. Spears stated she was not even allowed to buy candles. Under the conservatorship, Britney was deemed too impaired to handle decisions about these day-to-day things that shaped her own life, yet somehow, she was deemed competent enough to perform and work, making more money for her “estate,” money she could not access.
Jamie Spears was able to have full legal control over his daughter’s estate and every aspect of her life under the conservatorship, all while collecting a generous salary from the estate as his fee for “conserving” it. And by keeping his daughter in the dark whilst he secretly initiated legal proceedings, paying her assistants and those around her to throw away phone chargers and keep her isolated, he was able to do this fairly easily. And once in place, there was no going back. It took over a decade for Ms. Spears to end her conservatorship. Her eventual success was likely only due to her notoriety and a vigilant fandom that continually advocated for her for years. None of this was a surprise to disability rights advocates who already knew the dangers inherent in conservatorships for people with disabilities: they are very simple to enter into if the conservator is properly motivated, but they are extremely difficult to be freed from, and in between, there are dangerous legal grey areas that are ripe for abuse, exploitation, and embezzlement (to see a dramatized version of how easily conservatorships can be exploited, check out Netflix’s I Care a Lot).
And now advocates from Disability Voices United, Disability Rights California, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, and Free Britney L.A. wish to use the awareness created by the Spears case to force changes in California conservatorship laws which they contend are overused and misused in the Golden State. These groups present the Spears case as a prime example of how conservatees, denied the right to choose their own representation, become trapped in a system that in effect robs them of their civil rights and the ability to advocate for themselves. Advocates from these groups want to change existing California laws to provide more protections for those under court-ordered conservatorships. Specifically, those protections would include utilizing less-restrictive alternatives before considering conservatorship and making the legal process for ending a conservatorship simpler and quicker.
As PBS reports, the president of Disability Voices United, a Southern California advocacy group stated that ideally, "Conservatorships should be rare, the last resort. The default should be that people with disabilities retain their rights but get support when they need it." As it stands now, California law says conservatorships should only be ordered if a judge rules it is the least restrictive alternative, but advocates contend they are often imposed without considering other options. As an alternative, advocates are promoting "supported decision-making" agreements in which people with disabilities are allowed to choose someone to help them understand their choices and to assist in making decisions, an arrangement that would provide guidance but that would never take the decision away from the person with a disability. Similar alternatives already exist in many other states, but not in California.
With a new law comes new hope
To achieve their policy goals, advocates have rallied behind legislation (AB 1663) introduced on January, 19th, 2022, by Democratic Assemblyman Brian Maienschein that would require judges to document that all other alternatives including supported decision-making had been considered before granting a conservatorship. Passage of AB 1663 would write supported decision-making into California law and would allocate resources for grant programs, training, and technical assistance that would support it. The bill would make it easier to end conservatorships by mandating a periodic review where conservatees are asked for input about their own conservatorship where they can opt to make it less restrictive or leave it entirely. Under the new law, conservators would also be required to consult with conservatees regularly in order to make decisions that reflect the conservatee's preferences.
It is important to note that before a judge granted Spears’ conservatorship in 2008, there was no discussion or any effort to implement less restrictive measures such as the ones proposed in Maienschein’s bill.
Regarding the new bill and Britney’s case, a representative from Disability Voices United said, “I believe that if it had been in effect 13 years ago, the court would have been unable to conserve Britney Spears, but now Britney's story lights the way for where changes in our laws need to be made.”
As she radiates #freewomanenergy all over Instagram, Britney might say that the courts failed her in a way that was #toxic, but she came out on the other side of it #stronger than ever.