A Closer Look At Conservator Abuse
By: Claire Bahorski
October 28th, 2022
This article is part of our Fall 2022 magazine.
The intention of a conservatorship is to protect and transfer responsibility to another individual when someone is deemed unfit to handle their own finances or make life decisions. Recently, conservatorships and guardianships have been the topic of discussion, largely due to Britney Spears and her conservatorship battle.
For 13 years, Spears was a conservatee to her father, James Spears, who filed for a probate conservatorship on Feb. 1, 2008. While it was originally meant to last until the end of the year, the conservatorship was made permanent in October 2008.
There are two typical types of conservatorship. A conservator of the person oversees someone’s health, medical care and overall quality of life, and a conservator of the estate controls a conservatee’s financial decisions. Britney Spears was under both types of conservatorships, leaving her father to make every decision for her life, career and finances. These restrictions meant she couldn’t decide when to have children, get married or spend time with friends without supervision.
Although conservatorships are intended to help the elderly, those struggling with mental or physical disabilities, or those unable to make everyday decisions, there are many instances in which conservatees are abused or taken advantage of by their conservators.
According to the National Association to Stop Guardianship Abuse, individuals placed into abusive conservatorships lose the right to choose a lawyer, make financial decisions, choose where they live, refuse medical procedures or treatment, vote, drive, get married and much more.
Conservatorship cases are very detail-oriented, and the conservator should be monitored closely so as to determine that they are not abusing their power over their conservatee. Attorney Jeffrey Bahorski, who is experienced in conservatorship cases, believes these cases should be carefully handled so as to avoid financial, physical and mental abuse.
“If the conservator is properly discharging the fiduciary duty owed to the protected person, the ability of a third party to misuse or misappropriate the assets of the estate should be greatly minimized. If these powers are properly exercised, then the protected person should not suffer an adverse financial experience,” said Bahorski. This means the protected person shouldn’t be at risk of financial abuse unless the conservator themself is the one abusing the conservatee’s finances.
The wide scope of rights given to the conservator allows instances of abuse, such as Spears’ case, to slip through the cracks.
Bahorski explained that while there are protections built into conservatorships, such as inventories and accounts of financial activity, the conservator does have the ultimate say. “Simply put, a conservator possesses powers that if not exercised in the best interests of the protected person, it can be devastating financially, though these cases are infrequent. There are also some remedies to help the estate recover in the event of mismanagement, such as bond claims; these are often difficult and costly to pursue.”
In the years following her conservatorship, Spears was taken advantage of and silenced. In 2019, 11 years into her conservatorship, Spears canceled her upcoming shows and was checked into a mental health facility, seemingly by her own will. However, the podcast “Britney’s Gram” received a phone call from a paralegal involved with the case, who stated that Spears had been held at the facility against her will. It was after this that the #FreeBritney movement gained momentum.
Some may wonder how a court-appointed conservator can get away with abuse, especially in a high-profile case like this one. Bahorski sheds light on how conservators can get away with emotionally, mentally or financially abusing their conservatees.
He said, “Conservators can have broad powers over the assets of the estate, and this can affect the lifestyle and care to which the protected person receives. In cases where the same person, spouse or adult child, for example, is both the guardian and conservator, the protected person is at potential risk. The guardian or conservator is making decisions which directly affect the welfare of the protected person, and poor judgment or negligence by the guardian or conservator can have catastrophic results. There are safeguards in the appointment and reporting process through the probate court that minimize the risk of bad outcomes, but the process is not foolproof.”
In regard to the difficulty of getting out of a conservatorship, Bahorski is not surprised at Spears’ struggles in removing her father as her conservator.
“Appointment of a conservator is a legal process administered by a probate court. Because of that, many people may find it difficult to navigate through the probate court system. While a conservator can petition to terminate the conservatorship, the protected person may find it difficult to bring an end to the conservatorship if the conservator contests the petition. Third parties may also petition for the removal of a conservator. The probate court may ultimately have to decide whether to terminate the conservatorship or to remove an appointed conservator after a contested hearing. This can be a long and costly process.”
As more public attention was put on Spears’ conservatorship, The New York Times released “Framing Britney Spears,” a documentary that took a closer look at the details of her case and the #FreeBritney movement, inspiring fans to continue fighting for Spears’ freedom.
Lifelong fan Jordyn Steenland closely followed the case after hearing about Spears suddenly canceling her Las Vegas residency. “I thought it was strange that she ended it so abruptly, so I did some digging to find out what was going on behind the scenes. I did not know the extent of it until I watched the documentary,” she said.
Like many fans, Steenland learned more about conservatorships by watching this case unfold, saying, “From my understanding, conservatorships are used when an individual is assigned to handle the financial aspects of another person. I feel like they are becoming more popular because of the recent findings of Britney Spears’ and Amanda Bynes’ conservatorships that are gaining traction in the media. However, before I heard about those two conservatorships, I believed they were for elderly individuals who needed assistance with their finances.”
While Steenland acknowledges the need for conservatorships in some cases, she believes Spears is a victim of abuse and needed a different type of intervention while she was struggling.
“I don’t think she needed a conservatorship—I think she needed a financial assistant of some sort to help her with her finances. Someone who could help her with investments and how to save, etc. … I think there should have been more evaluations on her mental state,” she said.
“I felt like she didn’t necessarily fit the bill for someone that needed a conservatorship. I think her dad wanted to control all aspects of her life—her health, money, personal life and career.”
Another lifelong fan, Liberty Walker first heard about the #FreeBritney movement after watching the documentary “Framing Britney Spears.” Like Steenland, Walker believes there should have been alternative treatment for Spears rather than a permanent conservatorship.
“The system failed a person who was struggling with treatable mental health issues and put her into the hands of her father, who in the past had struggled with money and family issues,” she said.
Spears’ father was suspended from being her conservator in September 2021, and on Nov. 12, 2021 her conservatorship officially ended. Fans rejoiced at this news because Spears finally has the freedom to live her life without her choices or finances being controlled by a third party.
Steenland, like many other fans, is thrilled at the news that Spears can live freely now after not being able to do everyday activities like leaving her house or even driving her car without permission.
“I am very happy for her to have some independence. I think she needs to take some time off to do what she wants to do—travel, go on dates, spend time with her kids. I think she loves what she does, but on her terms. I can see her doing another residency or tour, but maybe in a couple of years when she is healthy and happy.”
Walker echoes these sentiments, saying, “I am so glad she’s free to live her life her own way. I think she should someday do a tour or some concerts for her fans. I think she’s doing great so far, speaking her mind and coming out with a book soon.”
Though Spears is lucky her conservatorship ended, others are not so lucky. She is not the first to be abused in a conservatorship, nor will she be the last. Fortunately, her story can inspire others in similar situations to seek the help they need to get out of an abusive conservatorship or guardianship. Spears has given others courage and has proven to her fans that despite the abuse she endured, like her hit song says, she is “stronger than yesterday.”
Claire Bahorski is a senior at Michigan State University majoring in human capital and society and humanities pre-law with concentrations in history, law and professional writing. She works at The Cube as part of the Office of the Provost communications team. She hopes to continue to strengthen her writing skills throughout her time with The Current and continue developing as a writer and editor.