In 2008, a California judge approved the appointment of a conservator to oversee the estate and financial affairs of pop star Britney Spears after a series of public breakdowns. Originally, the conservators appointed by the court were her father Jamie Spears (who managed her estate and business opportunities) and lawyer Andrew Wallet (who managed her financial affairs). The conservatorship has now been in force for 12 years, continuing until at least August 22, 2020. During that time, Ms. Spears has not been in control over her finances or property, and even her ability to enter into a business entertainment contract is under the authority of her court-appointed fiduciaries. Despite her mental health issues, it is unusual that a conservatorship would arise for someone as youthful and as active in her career as Ms. Spears. Since 2008, she has released several studio albums, has been on many concert tours, served as a judge on the X-Factor, and maintained a performance residency in Las Vegas. Her net worth is valued in excess of $50 million. She has even launched her own clothing and perfume merchandise lines for significant economic gain.
Her career success has led some of her fans to believe that she was just being controlled and manipulated under this conservatorship and cheated out of her funds. The #FreeBritney campaign arose online in 2009 and continues to publicly express concern that Ms. Spears continues to be taken advantage of years later. Allegedly, her mother is also a part of this movement. Since 2009, there have been changes in the conservatorship itself. Mr. Wallet resigned years ago and Jamie Spears suffered recent health emergencies that forced him to step back from that role. A professional conservator is involved to continue managing the estate today and court proceedings are regularly occurring to determine whether ongoing management of her financial affairs is necessary.
How did a conservatorship arise in the first place? Is ongoing administration necessary? When does it end?
Contrary to popular belief, conservators are not just appointed to those persons who are elderly and enfeebled. In Michigan, the probate court may appoint a conservator to an individual “unable to manage property and business affairs effectively for reasons such as mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, confinement, detention by a foreign power, or disappearance.” MCL 700.5401(3)(a). In addition, it must be shown that “[t]he individual has property that will be wasted or dissipated unless proper management is provided, or money is needed for the individual’s support, care, and welfare or for those entitled to the individual’s support, and that protection is necessary to obtain or provide money.” MCL 700.5401(3)(b). Even the person who needs protection can petition the court to have a conservator appointed to them.
After well-documented instances of Britney Spears shaving her head and hitting a photographer’s car with her umbrella, her father filed a petition in California for an emergency conservatorship while she was on a psychiatric hold. Although exact details are not public record, it is believed that the primary focus of the conservatorship is to protect Ms. Spears from “toxic” people who would easy gain access to her and manipulate her due to her mental illnesses. Recently, it was revealed that Ms. Spears suffers from chronic anxiety and again checked herself into a mental health facility in 2019. Courts can appoint a conservator who will protect the wards from entering into unfair contracts or being cheated out of money by having the conservator assuming that authority on his or her own. For someone to make a business deal with Britney Spears, they have to negotiate with her fiduciaries.
Is Ms. Spears really being controlled and manipulated out of her money by her conservators? The advantages of conservatorships are that the proceedings are matters of public record and annual accountings must be filed with the court. The conservators must be able to account for every dollar coming in and out of the estate. The judge will review and approve these accountings periodically. If it appears that any fiduciary is mismanaging the estate, then they can be removed from their position and punished for contempt of court. In many ways, a conservatorship might be more palatable to the #FreeBritney movement than if she gave legal authority herself to someone else through a durable power of attorney form. If her father or any other person was appointed as attorney-in-fact under a DPOA instead of a court-ordered conservatorship, then they would not have to file accountings that document their actions and would not be subject to public inspection. According to California court records, it appears that Ms. Spears has actually benefitted financially from the conservatorship. It is possible that this arrangement has helped secure business deals that would not have been possible otherwise.
Do the conservators receive a portion of the estate? In 2018, Jamie Spears was entitled to a fee of $128,000.00 for his duties as conservator per court records. Compensation for fiduciaries is based on the reasonable of the fee, the scope and complexity of duties involved, and the size of the estate. The amount of compensation paid to the conservator must be approved by the court. In Mr. Spears’ case, the management of a multi-million dollar estate that includes performance contracts, merchandising deals and extensive property management likely requires more work than the financial affairs of the average person. As a result, a higher fee may be justified. Once again, the public scrutiny that conservators are subject to provides more protection than if the attorney-in-fact was working behind the scenes without any oversight.
How long does the conservatorship last? The easy answer is as long as necessary. Once a ward can regain control of their financial affairs, then the conservatorship could end. The reality is that is it more complicated. One of the factors that the court must consider are the wishes and desires of the ward. If Ms. Spears expresses to the court that she prefers the conservatorship continue, then the judge will likely respect that wish even if there is evidence that she is able to manage her own estate again. Likewise, if Ms. Spears tells the court that she wants the conservatorship to end, then the court will have to make findings whether or not the conservatorship is still needed and, if not, work out a transition plan to return financial control to her. A conservatorship does not need to exist indefinitely.
In Michigan, conservatorships are supervised by the probate court. All interested persons (e.g. spouses, heirs-at-law, etc.) are entitled to notice of the proceedings and service of paperwork. The ward is entitled to petition the court at any time to modify or terminate the conservatorship. The ward retains several rights under the law even though their financial affairs are controlled by someone else. All accountings and proceedings are matters of public record and subject to approval and supervision by the judge. Any party (including the ward) is entitled to retain the services of a skilled probate lawyer for legal advice, assistance with court filings, appearing before the judge, and carrying out their duties. Probate law is complicated and sound guidance from a skilled lawyer can help navigate through the rules and procedures. In addition, legal counsel can help dispell myths and false assumptions.
If you or a loved one has further questions about conservatorships in Michigan or need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.