For more than a decade, pop icon Britney Spears has lived under a conservatorship with her father, Jamie Spears, after making frontpage tabloid news for her very public mental health challenges. In 2008, Spears was put under a 5150 hold in a psychiatric hospital for a mental health evaluation, and her father subsequently petitioned the Los Angeles Supreme Court for what was then a “temporary” conservatorship, giving him the legal right to oversee decisions about his daughter’s estate and health.
For years, Spears has unsuccessfully sought an end to her conservatorship. However, she was recently permitted for the first time to give a statement calling for an end to her conservatorship to a Los Angeles probate judge. During her 24-minute-long testimony, Spears detailed numerous allegations about the terms of her arrangement, including that she has been prevented from removing her IUD so that she cannot get pregnant and forced to take the drug lithium.
Spears’ revelations about the terms of her conservatorship were shocking to many. However, her story is only the most prominent in a long history of people with disabilities, particularly those who are Black, Latinx and Indigenous, being forced into similar arrangements against their will.
What is a conservatorship?
According to California law, a conservatorship is defined as “a court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the ‘conservator’) to care for another adult (called the ‘conservatee’) who cannot care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances.” Today, it is estimated that there are approximately 1.3 million active guardian or conservatorship cases in the United States.
According to disability rights advocates, Britney’s arrangement is similar to what many in the disabled community experience under conservatorships, which operate on the assumption that people with disabilities cannot adequately take care of themselves or make their own decisions. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “The coercive power and control handed to conservators is a disability rights crisis, and an insult to the reproductive liberty of people with disabilities.”
During her testimony, Spears heavily criticized the California legal system for ignoring her pleas to end her arrangement, saying the lack of acknowledgement made her “feel like I was dead,” and “like I didn’t matter.” Even as far back as 2016, Spears told a probate-court investigator that the conservatorship had become an “oppressive and controlling tool against her.”
These legal arrangements not only result in the loss of civil rights, but can also lead to or encourage financial, physical or emotional abuse.
According to the ACLU, Spears’ sentiment is not uncommon among conservatees, as these legal arrangements not only result in the loss of civil rights, but can also lead to or encourage financial, physical or emotional abuse.
Additionally, conservatorships can be dangerous because they often serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy: if a conservatee does well under the arrangement, then it proves the necessity of the conservatorship. However, if a conservatee does not handle the arrangement well, either in a mental or physical capacity, the need for the conservatorship is reinforced, making it nearly impossible for some people to escape their conservatorships.
What We Can Do
July is Disability Pride Month in recognition of President George H.W. Bush’s signing into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990. Today, this month is a time for promoting awareness, acceptance and inclusion for those with disabilities, be it mental, physical or otherwise. At Cerrell, we not only use this time to recognize those with disabilities, but also to highlight how much progress is still needed in order to ensure we don’t live in an ableist society that views non-disabled people as “normal” and people with disabilities as “inferior.”
As is proved in the case of Britney Spears, it is vital that we seek alternatives to conservatorships or guardianships, such as conditional powers of attorney, formal shared control of finances and supported decision-making (SDM) agreements. Unlike conservatorships, SDM agreements allow people with disabilities to retain their own decision-making capacity while also choosing supporters, such as friends, family members or co-workers, to help them make informed decisions if they so desire.
In California, we can also support recently introduced legislation aimed at strengthening and protecting the legal rights of conservatees, such as Assembly Bill 1194, which would, in part, require “anyone appointed as a conservator who is not a licensed professional to receive 10 hours of training in financial abuse,” and require that “medical reports from a person’s primary care physician to be considered by a court when making decisions about a person’s mental capacity.” According to Assemblyman Evan Low (D-San Jose), who introduced AB 1194, “We are trying to pull back the curtain on conservatorships in California… We know abuses are occurring.”
While Spears’ conservatorship is rightfully gaining increased scrutiny thanks to the efforts of Spears, journalists and a wide array of disability and civil rights activists, her case also serves as a stark reminder that there are millions of people with disabilities currently living under conservatorships that are not covered in the news and whose stories we do not know.
As Spears herself stated this past June in court testimony,