Since the age of 16, when she burst onto the charts with her debut single, “...Hit Me Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears has been one of the world’s most famous and beloved pop stars. Yet despite her massive fame and fortune, Britney, who is now 39, has never truly had full control over her own life.
As most familiar with pop culture know by now, Britney has been living under a conservatorship for the past 13 years. Also known as “adult guardianship,” 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. The conservatorship was initially established in February 2008 after Britney suffered a mental breakdown, which resulted in her being briefly hospitalized.
A Total Loss of Control
Back in 2008, the court-appointed Britney’s father and attorney Andrew Wallet as her co-conservators, as Britney was deemed mentally unfit to care for herself. The arrangement was only meant to be temporary, but in October of that year, the conservatorship was made long-term, and her father has remained in nearly complete control of Britney’s life ever since. Although there has been widespread speculation that Britney’s conservatorship was abusive, the exact details of her conservatorship have been kept private. Moreover, until very recently, Britney had never spoken publicly about her life under the arrangement.
Years of Abuse and Conflict
However, as we detailed in part one, Britney recently testified in a court hearing during which she described a shocking pattern of abuse and exploitation at the hands of her father and others involved with the conservatorship. We also discussed how confidential court records obtained by the New York Times provided support for Britney’s claims and showed that the pop icon had expressed serious opposition to her conservatorship as early as 2014, and tried unsuccessfully on multiple occasions to have her father removed from his position.
In response, Britney’s father flatly denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyers filed a petition requesting the court 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, which had previously signed on to be the co-conservator of Spears' finances, asked the court to be removed from the pop star’s conservatorship.
In a follow-up court hearing held this week on July 14th, Judge Brenda Penny approved the resignation of Ingham and Bessemer Trust and granted a request by Britney to hire her own lawyer. To represent her moving forward, Britney chose Mathew Rosengart, a prominent Hollywood litigator and former federal prosecutor, as her new attorney.
Britney, who phoned into the hearing, once again asked the court to remove her father as co-conservator, and she said that her father should be prosecuted for his alleged abuse. But Britney also reiterated that she’s not willing to undergo any more mental-health evaluations, which she called "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.”
Although Britney still hasn’t filed the formal legal document seeking to end her conservatorship, which is required by law, her new lawyer, who was present at the latest court hearing, told the judge he plans to file the petition to remove Jamie Spears from the conservatorship. If so, the judge could rule on the petition in the next court hearing on the conservatorship, which is scheduled for September 29.
Use Estate Planning To Avoid Britney’s Fate
Although we’ll have to wait to find out whether the court will allow Britney to terminate the conservatorship without undergoing another psychiatric evaluation, as we noted previously, Britney could have been saved from the years of control by her father, if she had created a proper estate plan early on in her adult life. In fact, using a variety of different estate planning vehicles, Britney could have not only chosen the person, or persons, who would be in charge of making decisions on her behalf during her incapacity, but she could have also created legally binding instructions stipulating how her assets and personal care should be managed during her incapacity. With the right planning, Britney could have even spelled out the specific conditions that must be met for her to be deemed incapacitated in the first place.
With this in mind, here in part two, we’ll discuss how you and your loved ones can use proactive estate planning to create a comprehensive plan for incapacity, so you can avoid suffering the same fate as Britney. A debilitating illness or injury could strike at any time, at any age, so if you’ve yet to create your own incapacity plan, consider gettting this urgent matter taken care of.
Planning For Incapacity: Where To Start
When planning for your potential incapacity, the first thing to ask yourself is, “If I’m ever incapacitated and unable to care for myself, who would I want to make decisions on my behalf?” Specifically, you’ll be selecting the person, or persons, you want to make your health care, financial, and legal decisions for you until you either recover or pass away. The most important thing to remember is that you must choose someone. Like we’ve seen with Britney, if you don’t legally name someone to make these decisions during your incapacity, the court will choose someone for you. And this is where things can get extremely difficult for you and your loved ones.
Although laws differ by state, in the absence of any estate planning, if you become incapacitated, the court will typically appoint a conservator or guardian to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf. As with Britney, this person could be a family member you’d never want managing 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.
Furthermore, like most court proceedings, the process of naming a guardian can be quite lengthy, costly, and emotionally draining for your family. And this is assuming your family members agree about what’s in your best interest. If your family members disagree about the course of your medical treatment or managing your finances, this could lead to ugly court battles between your loved ones. Such conflicts can tear your family apart and drain your estate’s finances. For an example of just how bad things can get, look at the case of Florida’s Terry Schiavo, who spent 15 years in a vegetative state after suffering a heart attack at age 26. Because Terry did not have a living will or health care directive indicating in writing how she would want medical decisions made for her in such an event, 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 ultimately allowed to pass away.
A Comprehensive Incapacity Plan
Fortunately, such turmoil can be easily avoided through proper estate planning. Determining which estate planning strategies you should use to grant and guide this decision-making authority depends entirely on your personal circumstances. There are several options available, but choosing what’s best for you is something you should ultimately decide after consulting with an experienced lawyer because there are many considerations beyond simply whether to “pull the plug”, including how to handle such matters in the event of a pregnancy, whether to keep providing hydration and nutrition (and, if so, what kind), and how to determine incapacity. These, and other factors, are not typically addressed in a standard advance health care directive.
That said, we can tell you one estate planning tool that’s totally worthless when it comes to your incapacity—a will. A will only goes into effect upon your death, and then it merely governs how your assets should be distributed, so having a will does nothing to keep your family out of court and out of conflict in the event of your incapacity.
When it comes to creating your incapacity plan, your best bet is to put in place an array of different planning tools, rather than a single document. To this end, your plan should include some, or all, of the following: Durable financial power of attorney: This document grants an individual of your choice the immediate authority to make decisions related to the management of your financial, business, and legal affairs, and can state how your affairs should be handled.
Revocable living trust: A living trust can immediately transfer control of your assets held by the trust to a person of your choice to be used for your benefit in the event of your incapacity. 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.
Medical power of attorney: An advance directive that grants an individual of your choice the immediate legal authority to make decisions about your medical treatment in the event of your incapacity.
Living will: An advance directive that provides specific guidance about how your medical decisions should be made during your incapacity, including who should be able to see you and specifics regarding how you want your care to be handled. In Hawaii, a medical power of attorney and a living will are combined in a single document.
Documents Aren’t Enough In the end, there’s one thing to remember about all of these documents—they are just documents, and they don’t provide your loved ones with a trusted advisor who is often needed to deal with all potential outcomes, and to navigate the legal system on your behalf. If you really want to keep your family out of court and out of conflict, you cannot just rely on documents to do it. Instead, these documents should be created by a lawyer like us who will get to know you, your wishes, and be there for you throughout the many stages of life—and ultimately be there for your family when you can’t be.
Furthermore, in addition to the above estate planning documents, it’s equally—if not more—important for your loved ones to be aware of your plan and understand their role in it. As part of the planning process, a Personal Family Lawyer® will hold a family meeting with all of the individuals impacted by your plan, where we walk them through your plan, explaining the reasoning behind your decisions and what they need to do if something happens to you.
In the end, you’ll find that the best protection comes from combining your comprehensive incapacity plan with a team of people who will care for you, can watch out for you, and know exactly what to do in the event tragedy strikes. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can guide and support you to put in place both of these elements. In doing so, it would make it virtually impossible for a conservator or legal guardian to ever be appointed—or even need to be appointed—against your wishes, and instead, we will 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.
Timing Is Everything
Keep in mind that your incapacity plan must be created well before you become incapacitated. You must be able to clearly express your wishes and consent in order for these planning documents to be valid, and even slight levels of mental illness or dementia could get them thrown out of court.
Plus, as we mentioned earlier, an unforeseen accident or illness could strike at any time no matter your age, so don’t wait to get your incapacity plan started.
Finally, it’s vital that you regularly review and update your estate plan to keep pace with changes to your life, family dynamics, and the law. If any of the individuals you’ve named becomes unable or unwilling to serve for whatever reason, you’ll need to revise your plan accordingly.
Let Britney’s Story Be A Lesson
Although Britney’s story is certainly tragic and we can’t be sure how it will ultimately play out, her case has at least shined a spotlight on the potential for abuse that exists within the conservatorship and guardianship system. In fact, Britney’s case has already inspired lawmakers at both the state and federal level to take a closer look at adult guardianships and push for increased oversight and transparency for these legal arrangements.
As one Congresswoman from Massachusetts 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.
By the same token, Britney’s story should inspire you to make certain that you and your loved ones have the proper estate planning strategies in place to prevent the loss of autonomy, family conflict, and potential for abuse that comes with court-ordered conservatorships and guardianships. To this end, if you’ve yet to plan for incapacity, meet with an experienced lawyer to advise you about the most suitable estate planning vehicles to put in place. And if you already have an incapacity plan prepared—even one created by a lawyer—have it reviewed it to make sure it’s been properly set up, maintained, and updated.
This article is a service of the Law Office of Keoni Souza, LLC, an estate planning law firm in Honolulu, Hawaii. 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 is why we offer a strategic planning session, during which you will get more financially organized than you have ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love.
Disclaimer: All information on this website is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. You should contact an attorney trained to work with families on estate planning matters regarding your specific situation. Use of and access to this website or any of the email links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between the Law Office of Keoni Souza, LLC, and any users or any other party.