The recent media attention to pop star, Britney Spears’ conservatorship has painted a dismal picture of arrangements whereby a court-appointed individual has authority to control various aspects of another individual’s finances and personal decisions. Public opinion has been harshly critical of the long-running conservatorship, fueled by Spears’ claims that her conservators are not just overstepping their authority, but that they are abusive and exploitive.
Spears’ pleas to end her conservatorship have caught the attention of not only her fans and the Hollywood elite, but of legal and mental health professionals who are interested in legislative reform to conservatorship arrangements. Conservatorships (called “guardianships” in Wisconsin) are meant to protect vulnerable individuals by placing their decision-making rights in someone else’s hands. If the decision-making authority is in the hands of someone who is abusive or exploitive, an individual under conservatorship is particularly unable to defend themselves given their incapacities. This is where court oversight becomes a necessity.
Importantly, as with most areas of the law, the legal rules differ from state to state. In Wisconsin, there are two arrangements whereby a court-appointed individual controls another person’s finances or their personal/health care. The first arrangement is called “guardianship,” which is an involuntary appointment of a responsible person (called the guardian) for someone who the court has determined cannot care for himself or herself, or who cannot manage his or her own finances (called the ward). The court can appoint a guardian of estate (finances) or a guardian of person, or both. The second arrangement, called “conservatorship” is a voluntary arrangement whereby an individual (called the conservatee) asks the court to appoint a conservator to handle their finances. The voluntary conservatorship can be terminated by the conservatee at any time upon request. In many states, including California where the Spears case is being addressed, a conservatorship is an involuntary procedure.
Guardianship and conservatorships are often used for people who have severe cognitive impairment that renders them substantially incapable of receiving and evaluating information necessary to make appropriate financial, personal and health care decisions. The impairment may be the result of conditions such as dementia, developmental disabilities, mental illness or brain injuries, for instance.
In Wisconsin, guardianship is considered an extreme step used as a last resort and when there are no other less restrictive options. A ward has the right to their own attorney, the right to present medical evidence that their incapacities are not sufficient to require guardianship, and a say in who becomes their guardian. In addition, the court is required to appoint an independent attorney, called a Guardian ad Litem, whose role is to evaluate whether guardianship is in the proposed ward’s best interests.
Wisconsin’s guardianship laws have already been reformed to provide that a ward’s rights are only removed if absolutely necessary. A ward should retain the right to make all decisions he or she is capable of making with appropriate supports in place. The authority of a guardian in Wisconsin only extends to those areas of functioning that a person cannot manage on their own (or on their own with support). It is not intended to be used to protect someone from making “bad” decisions. The court is required to evaluate whether a ward should lose their right to take part in all areas of decision making, or whether the ward should retain rights in certain areas.
Ending a guardianship can be difficult if the ward cannot demonstrate by medical or other evidence that the condition resulting in their incapacity has improved, or that other supports have allowed appropriate functioning to resume, but the law is clear that a ward may request (petition) to end their guardianship. Further, if the law is intended to be less restrictive to the individual, it stands to reason that the conservatorship should be terminated if the individual no longer meets the standards.
In Spears’ case, it is impossible to speculate whether the conservatorship should be terminated without knowing all the facts. Persons under guardianships and conservatorships often have improved functioning in many personal and financial aspects of their lives simply because they are benefiting from assisted decision making, medication management and are free from outside exploitation. Under appropriate review and oversight, the conservatorship or guardianship should nonetheless be terminated if the standard for incapacity is no longer met. This can be a hard pill to swallow for concerned family members who believe – often correctly – that once assisted decision making is over, the dysfunctional behavior will resume.
Either way, it is important to remember that although the case of a famous pop star might bring about legislative reform, when handled properly, conservatorships and guardianships play an important role in protecting elderly, disabled and mentally ill adults from abuse, exploitation and the harm that could result from the inability to make effective decisions. If you are concerned about a loved one with impaired decision making, it is important to talk to an attorney who specializes in guardianship and conservator arrangements regarding appropriate options.