Britney Spears’ Nightmare Conservatorship Underscores The Vital Importance Of Incapacity Planning—Part 2
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 pop stars. However, despite her massive fame and fortune, Britney, has never truly had full control over her own life.
As most familiar with pop culture know, Britney has been living under a conservatorship for the past 13 years. 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 that 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. This occurred because Britney was deemed mentally unfit to care for herself. The arrangement was only meant to be temporary. However, in October of that year, the conservatorship was made long-term. Her father has remained in nearly complete control of Britney’s life ever since.
Even though there has been widespread speculation that Britney’s conservatorship was abusive, the exact details of her conservatorship have been kept private. Additionally, until very recently, Britney had never spoken publicly about her life under the arrangement.
Years of Abuse and Conflict
However, as we detailed last week in part one, Britney recently testified in a court hearing. During her testimony 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. She has even tried unsuccessfully on multiple occasions to have her father removed from his position.
In response, Britney’s father denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyers filed a petition requesting the court investigate Britney’s allegations. Shortly after the hearing, both Britney’s court-appointed lawyer, Samuel Ingham, and Bessemer Trust, the wealth management company that had previously had been a co-conservator of Spears’ finances, asked the court to be removed from the pop star’s conservatorship.
In a follow-up court hearing held on July 14th, Judge Brenda Penny approved the resignation of Ingham and Bessemer Trust. She also granted a request by Britney to hire her own lawyer to represent her moving forward. Britney chose Mathew Rosengart, a prominent Hollywood litigator as her new attorney.
Britney, who phoned into the hearing, once again asked the court to remove her father as co-conservator. She also said that her father should be prosecuted for his alleged abuse. 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, 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, 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, Britney could have been saved from the years of control by her father if she had created a proper Will and Trust early on in her adult life.
In fact, by using a variety of different Wills and Trusts planning vehicles, Britney could have not only chosen the person 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.
With this in mind, here in part two, we’ll discuss how you and your loved ones can use proactive Wills and Trusts planning to create a comprehensive plan for incapacity. This will allow you to avoid suffering the same fate as Britney. Further, since a debilitating illness or injury could strike at any time, at any age, if you’ve yet to create your own incapacity plan, contact me, your Personal Family Lawyer® right away to get this urgent matter taken care of.
Planning For Incapacity: Where To Start
When planning for your potential incapacity, the first thing to consider 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 you want to make your healthcare, 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 no matter who they are. This is because, 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. This is where things can get extremely difficult for you and your loved ones.
Although laws differ from state to state, in the absence of any Wills and Trusts 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 make these types of decisions for you, a professional guardian who charges exorbitant fees, or even a crooked professional guardian who abuses and exploits you for their own financial gain.
Furthermore, the process of naming a guardian can be quite lengthy, costly, and emotionally draining for your family. The above 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.
Such conflicts can tear your family apart and drain your estate’s funds. 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. Because Terry did not have a living will or health care directive indicating 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.
A Comprehensive Incapacity Plan
Fortunately, such turmoil can be easily avoided through Wills and Trusts planning. Determining which Wills and Trusts planning strategies you should use to grant and guide this decision-making authority depends entirely on your 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. This is because there are many considerations beyond simply whether to “pull the plug”. These additional considerations are not typically addressed in a standard advance health care directive.
That said, there is one Wills and Trusts 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. Therefore, 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. To cover all you bases, your plan should include some, or all, of the following:
Durable financial power of attorney: This document grants an individual of your choice the authority to make decisions related to the management of your financial, business, and legal affairs. It can state how your affairs should be handled.
Revocable living trust: A living trust can immediately transfer control of your assets which are 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 on how your assets should be managed. The document can even spell out specific conditions that must be met for you to be deemed incapacitated.
Medical power of attorney: This is 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: This is an advance directive that provides specific guidance about how your medical decisions should be made during your incapacity. In some instances, a medical power of attorney and a living will are combined into one document.
Documents Aren’t Enough
In the end, there’s one thing to remember about all of these documents—they are just documents. They don’t provide your loved ones with a trusted advisor who is often needed to deal with all potential outcomes regarding your incapacity 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. Instead, these documents should be created by a lawyer who will get to know you, your wishes, and be there for you throughout the many stages of life and will ultimately be there for your family when you can’t be.
Furthermore, in addition to the above Wills and Trusts planning documents, it’s equally 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, In this meeting, 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 for you and your assets 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 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 against your wishes. 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 before you become incapacitated. You must be able to clearly express your wishes and consent in order for these planning documents to be valid.
Plus, as we mentioned earlier, an unforeseen accident or illness could strike at any time. So don’t wait—contact us right away to get your incapacity plan started.
Finally, it’s vital that you regularly review and update your Will and Trust to keep pace with changes to your life and the law. If any of the individuals you’ve named becomes unable or unwilling to serve, you’ll need to revise your plan accordingly, and we can help with that, too.
Let Britney’s Story Be A Lesson
Although Britney’s story is 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 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 Wills and Trusts planning strategies in place to prevent the loss of autonomy, family conflict, and potential for abuse that comes with court-ordered conservatorships.
If you’ve yet to plan for incapacity, schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session™ right away. We, your Personal Family Lawyer®, can advise you about the most suitable Wills and Trusts planning vehicles to put in place. Further, if you already have an incapacity plan prepared, we can review it to make sure it’s been properly set up, maintained, and updated. Contact us, your Personal Family Lawyer® today to create a plan for your life.
This article is a service of Levi L. Alexander, Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents. We help to ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. This is why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™. During this session, you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session for free.