On Nov. 12, 2021, Britney Spears became a free woman. The conservatorship ordered back in 2008 that controlled every aspect of Britney’s personal life, finances and medical decisions was terminated by a Los Angeles judge effective immediately. For the past two and a half years, fans of Britney have rallied around the pop icon, captivated by the increasingly troubling details of the conservatorship and determined to see its termination. Known as the #FreeBritney movement, the tireless efforts of fans across the globe to reinstate Britney’s autonomy became a widespread social movement with an enormous following.
Could Britney’s conservatorship have been avoided altogether? In both California and Ohio, an adult can create healthcare and financial Power of Attorney (POA) documents authorizing an agent to make decisions on his or her behalf. POA documents are typically executed in an individual’s estate plan and become effective upon the individual becoming incapacitated. While Britney possibly had POAs in place and the judge still determined she needed a conservatorship based on the circumstances, generally POAs preclude the need for a conservatorship or guardianship appointment.
General Probate Conservatorships in California
To better comprehend the nuances of Britney’s conservatorship, it is important to understand conservatorships in general under California law. In California, a conservatorship is a legal proceeding whereby the court evaluates the vulnerability of an adult who may be unable to take care of his or her own needs including shelter, food, medical care and personal finances. The court may also determine whether he or she may be subject to undue influence. The conservatee is the individual being cared for under the conservatorship while the conservator is the individual who is responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of the conservatee. Under California law, a conservator may be “of the person,” meaning the conservator cares for and protects the conservatee or “of the estate,” meaning the conservator handles the conservatee’s financial matters, such as paying bills and collecting income.
Under California law, a general probate conservatorship is a conservatorship over adults who are unable to provide for their personal needs due to physical injury, dementia or other reasons rendering them incapable of caring for themselves or vulnerable to undue influence. General probate conservatorships are granted indefinitely by a probate judge, but the individual under the conservatorship can petition to terminate it.
A petition for the appointment of a conservator can be filed by the proposed conservatee, the spouse or domestic partner of the proposed conservatee, a relative of the proposed conservatee, any interested local entity or agency of California or any other interested person or friend of the proposed conservatee. Once a petition has been filed, the probate court must hold a hearing to determine whether a conservatorship is necessary to protect the interests of the proposed conservatee. A court may grant a temporary conservatorship without a hearing if the court determines there is an urgent, immediate need. Temporary conservatorships usually last between 30-60 days.
In order to terminate a conservatorship in California, a petition may be filed by the conservator, the conservatee or the spouse, domestic partner or any relative or friend of the conservatee or other interested person. Upon receiving a petition, the court should determine the termination matter at a hearing. If the court determines that the conservatorship is no longer required or that grounds for establishment of a conservatorship of the person or estate, or both, no longer exist, the court should terminate the conservatorship.
Over the last 13 years, Britney was the conservatee of a general probate conservatorship mainly controlled by her father, Jamie Spears. After several public episodes of erratic behavior and two involuntary psychiatric evaluations, Jamie petitioned the Los Angeles County Superior Court to order an emergency temporary conservatorship over his daughter. On Feb. 1, 2008, the court granted the petition for an emergency temporary conservatorship and by Oct. 28, 2008, the court extended the conservatorship indefinitely, stating it was necessary and appropriate due to the complexity of financial and business entities and Britney’s susceptibility to undue influence. The judge ruled that Jamie would remain the conservator over Britney’s person while he and attorney Andrew Wallet would be co-conservators over Britney’s estate.
Conservatorships are designed to protect individuals who are incapable of protecting and caring for themselves. It appears, at least for many years, that Britney’s conservatorship did anything but that. Britney’s conservatorship controlled her financial, medical and career decisions as well as important personal matters such as visits with her two children and whether she could get remarried. As early as 2014, Britney and her attorney expressed concerns over Jamie’s fitness and suitability as conservator. Previously confidential court records from 2016 reveal that Britney strongly opposed the conservatorship and felt that the conservatorship had become an “oppressive and controlling tool against her.” Britney had also expressed that the conservatorship was “abusive” and that she wanted it to be terminated as soon as possible.
Over the past couple of years, the disturbing details of the conservatorship have come to light, and fans of Britney began demanding legal intervention to #FreeBritney from her father’s control. In early September of this year, Jamie surrendered to the mounting pressure and filed a petition to terminate the 13-year long conservatorship. Earlier this month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny terminated the conservatorship of the person and the estate of Britney Spears, stating that Britney has demonstrated that she is capable of making her own decisions and the conservatorship is no longer required.
While the termination of Britney’s conservatorship is a monumental occasion to Britney and her supporters, it begs the question of how the conservatorship was able to continue for so long. During the course of the 13-year long conservatorship, Britney released four albums, headlined a global tour that grossed $131 million and performed for four years in a successful Las Vegas residency. Such accomplishments do not reflect an individual who is unable to take care of her own needs. Britney appeared to get her life back together after a tumultuous 2008, so it is unclear how the conservatorship remained intact for so long under California law.
Britney’s Conservatorship Under Ohio Law
The details surrounding Britney’s conservatorship also beg the question of how her conservatorship would have been treated under Ohio law. Had Britney been an Ohio resident, would the past 13 years have turned out differently for her?
Under Ohio law, a guardianship is the equivalent of a conservatorship in California. Ohio law defines a guardian as “any person, association, or corporation appointed by the probate court to have the care and management of the person, the estate, or both of an incompetent or minor.” A ward is the individual over which the guardianship is placed, which is the equivalent of a conservatee in California. There are three types of guardianships in Ohio. A guardian of the person is appointed to make personal decisions for the ward, a guardian of the estate is appointed to manage the ward’s assets and a guardian of the person and of the estate is tasked with both responsibilities.
Prior to appointing a guardian over an incompetent ward, the probate court must hold a hearing. The standard for proving incompetency is by clear and convincing evidence. Ohio courts have defined clear and convincing evidence as the measure or degree of proof that will produce in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or conviction as to the allegations sought to be established. It requires more than a mere preponderance of the evidence used in civil cases but less than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard used in criminal cases.
In Ohio, there is a presumption that once an individual is found incompetent, he or she remains incompetent. However, this presumption can be rebutted with satisfactory proof that counterbalances the presumption or causes the presumption to disappear. Upon satisfactory proof that the necessity for the guardianship no longer exists, the probate court is under a mandatory duty to terminate the guardianship. Ohio courts have denied termination requests where wards did not receive treatment, were unaware that they were involved in a legal proceeding, exhibited cognitive impairments and had no insight into their mental illnesses. Conversely, Ohio courts have found satisfactory proof that the necessity for the guardianship no longer exists where wards were found to be rational and oriented, mentally capable of handling their day-to-day affairs and had made substantial progress and were presently competent to manage their own affairs.
If Britney’s conservatorship was governed by Ohio law, Jamie Spears would have had to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Britney was incompetent. In 2008, Britney suffered from several public meltdowns and psychiatric hospitalizations, making it plausible that an Ohio probate court would have ordered a guardianship over Britney’s person and estate. However, it is less clear whether Britney’s conservatorship would have continued for 13 years under Ohio law. During her conservatorship, Britney appeared to make substantial progress with her mental health and well-being, evidenced by her major career accomplishments and the absence of public meltdowns. While the details of Britney’s competency remain unknown, if there was satisfactory proof that Britney no longer needed a conservatorship at any point during the past 13 years, then an Ohio probate judge would have been under a mandatory duty to terminate the conservatorship.
Remember, to avoid the potential need for a guardianship appointment by an Ohio probate court altogether, it is paramount to include updated Health Care Power of Attorney and Durable Financial Power of Attorney documents in an estate plan.
For more information or to discuss further, please contact Susan Friedman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 216.736.7272.