Conservatorships: What are they and who needs them?

Aug 5, 2021

In pop culture news, one of the biggest stories currently circulating is Britney Spears’ conservatorship. According to the courts, her conservatorship has been in place since 2008. Spears alleges that the conservatorship is no longer necessary and the arrangement is abusive.

This high-profile case has brought a little-understood piece of US law into the spotlight: the role of conservatorships. In the case of Britney Spears, Spears' parents allege that they put the conservatorship in place in order to protect Spears's mental health and vulnerability. 

What is a conservatorship?

The idea behind a conservatorship is to protect adults who cannot care for themselves or manage their own finances. In this instance, the court will appoint another person (the ‘conservator’) to take protective responsibility for the individual (the ‘conservatee’). Essentially, it is a form of legal guardianship for an adult.

In justified conservatorship relationships, the focus is on the needs of the conservatee and not the conservator. Usually, the conservator will make all necessary decisions with the assistance of doctors and social workers. The idea is to keep the conservatee healthy and safe. Common reasons for a conservatorship involve protecting special needs individuals, patients in comas and persons dealing with degenerative brain diseases. 

What kinds of conservatorship are there? 

Just as there are multiple varieties of child custody, there are different types of conservatorship. For instance, it is possible for a conservator to hold financial guardianship of a conservatee, but not hold physical conservatorship. In this instance, the conservatee would not have access to their own money or investments but would still have full physical autonomy. The conservatee would have the right to decide where to live (whether independently or in a facility). 

It is also possible to have a limited conservatorship. In this instance, the conservator would have authority over specific aspects of the conservatee’s life as deemed by the courts. This is a very common and flexible variety of conservatorship to have for mentally disabled adults. This allows the conservatee to live with the greatest degree of autonomy possible while still having a level of protection. 

Are there alternatives? 

Obtaining a conservatorship can be a very intense process and it is not right for everybody. In this instance, there are alternatives to conservatorships that you can explore. For instance, in California there is Supported Decision-Making, or SDM. This is where the vulnerable person works in tandem with trusted advisors to make decisions without the legal overhead of a conservatorship. 

Another option is to file durable power of attorney. This gives an outside individual the right to make legal decisions on behalf of the vulnerable person. Unlike a conservatorship, the vulnerable person has the right to end durable power of attorney at any point. Even if an individual has special needs or other developmental disabilities, the law considers individuals over 18 to be competent unless an outside authority deems otherwise; thus, persons with special needs are usually able to sign the forms granting somebody else power of attorney. 

Creating a guardianship on behalf of a vulnerable person is not a decision to make lightly. What is right for your family and situation may not be right for everybody. Contact us today at AmerEstate to learn more about your options and protect your loved ones.