By , Madeline Blackburn, Elder & Disability Law Clinic Student, Spring 2021
From 2007-2008, celebrity pop star Britney Spears experienced multiple psychological breakdowns. Her mental health issues were likely the result of childhood traumas brought on by her father’s alcoholism and parental dysfunction, career-induced stress due to constant intrusions into her privacy by the paparazzi, and a jam-packed performance schedule. Her mental instability culminated in locking herself in a bathroom with her one-year-old son and refusing to come out. She was placed on a fourteen-day psychiatric hold, and her father, Jamie Spears, was given conservatorship of her finances.
A conservator is someone appointed by a judge to manage the finances of another deemed incapable of doing it themselves. Usually, conservators are appointed over elderly, severely disabled, or infirm individuals. At 39 years-old, Britney Spears’ situation is unusual, especially given that she has remained mentally stable for more than a decade. Her conservatorship is under scrutiny again, given that her father recently stepped down as conservator due to health reasons, and a recent documentary “Framing Britney Spears” was released on online streaming services this month. Now that a conservator’s role in managing Britney’s estate is up in the air, she has sought to expand her legal team to better advocate for herself. Previously, Jamie Spears had fought against Britney’s attempts to gain additional legal assistance, claiming it would be too expensive. Britney’s lawyer stated that “Clearly, James’ objectives are either to filibuster the appointment of a corporate fiduciary indefinitely or to dominate the entire process himself, including the selection of the fiduciary. . . . The only way to assure that Britney’s voice is heard will be for her to have qualified litigation counsel available to place her on a level playing field with James.”  The court granted her wishes, and she now has greater legal firepower on her side to advocate for her desires.
Britney’s legal team has made it clear that the conservatorship is voluntary and that her issue lies with her father being in charge of her estate. Her lawyers noted that Britney is afraid of her father and should be allowed more flexibility in decision-making given that she is a “high functioning” conservatee. She requested that a corporate finance group Bessmer Trust take over her finances in place of her father, which he opposes.
As previously discussed, Britney Spears’ situation is an anomaly because most conservatees are senior citizens. Although Britney Spears’ age makes her conservatorship unusual, the issue of unsavory motivations for seeking and maintaining conservatorship is not unique to her situation. Baby boomers are the second-largest generational demographic and currently own 50.2% of the wealth in the United States. As they age, this wealth will change hands, increasingly via conservatorship, to their children or grandchildren. Since Gen X and millennials lag severely behind in wealth accumulation and financial stability, there will be even greater opportunity and incentive to abuse finances. This is obviously not the case in every conservatorship; financial oversight can be highly beneficial when bestowed upon a caring family member or friend and has even helped save lives during the current pandemic. However, in our field, we must maintain awareness of the increasing likelihood of the elderly and disabled’s financial exploitation and serve our clients accordingly. Our professional assessment of clients is the first line of defense in preventing financial exploitation.