Britney Spears and the conservatorship she endured under her father Jamie Spears for 13 long years was the subject of intense media scrutiny. Her legal problems began in 2007 following her high-profile divorce from Kevin Federline and the death of her aunt to ovarian cancer, after which Ms. Spears suffered what could only be described as a mental breakdown. Throughout that year, she had shaved her head, assaulted paparazzi with an umbrella, was charged with a hit-and-run misdemeanor, and was in and out of treatment facilities. In 2008, her father filed a petition in California for an emergency conservatorship over her while she was on a psychiatric hold. A conservator in California is a person who is appointed by a judge to manage the financial affairs or aspects of daily life for another person. Britney Spears was under both a “conservatorship of the estate” (where the ward’s financial affairs and money are controlled) and under a “conservatorship of the person” (where daily activities such as health care or living arrangements are overseen). This emergency petition created a conservatorship that was originally going to last for days, but then continued to exist over months and years as a permanent arrangement.
Britney Spears had always objected to the conservatorship and public support on her behalf grew over time. Disturbing details about her treatment leaked from insiders in the management team and from investigative reporting. A 2021 documentary drew considerable attention, and fans across the world rallied behind a #FreeBritney social media movement. In June 2021, Ms. Spears spoke directly to the court in a well-publicized statement where she accused her family and managers of abuse, mistreatment, coercion, and conflicts of interest. Eventually, both Ms. Spears’ attorneys and Jamie Spears’ attorneys filed petitions to terminate the conservatorship. On November 12, 2021, Judge Brenda Penny ruled that the conservatorship over Britney Spears’ person and estate is “no longer required, effective immediately”. After 13 long years, Ms. Spears was able to make her own life decisions again.
During the same time period, another well-known film and television actress found herself in a conservatorship under her parents to much less fanfare. Amanda Bynes was famous throughout the 1990s and 2000s for starring in television shows such as The Amanda Show and What I Like About You, and for feature movie roles in Big Fat Liar (2002), What a Girl Wants (2003), and She’s the Man (2006). Unfortunately, she fell prey to substance abuse problems and mental health issues that pulled her into significant legal problems. She was charged with DUI in 2012 in Hollywood and received a three-year probation sentence. In 2013, she was charged with reckless endangerment and marijuana possession in New York. Later that year, she set a fire in a stranger’s driveway. While she was hospitalized under a mental-health evaluation hold, her parents filed for and obtained temporary conservatorship over her in August 2013.
The conservatorship was not without some controversy. In October 2014, Bynes accused her father of sexual abuse on social media, but she retracted those statements later after claiming a microchip in her brain made her say those things. But by and large, her conservatorship has been quiet and subject to little public scrutiny. In 2018, Bynes stated that she had been sober from controlled substances with the help of her parents. In February 2022, Bynes petitioned the court to end the conservatorship because her condition has improved to the point that it was no longer necessary, and her parents supported the request. A judge officially terminated the conservatorship on March 22, 2022.
Britney Spears and Amanda Bynes are two child stars with similar life experiences of achieving fame but struggling to cope with its consequences. Both entered into court-supervised conservatorships under a parent that lasted for years. Both conservatorships played out very differently. Britney Spears and her ordeal was very public and the subject of criticism regarding abuse and mismanagement. Amanda Bynes and her legal supervision was low-key and ended with little drama. Why was Ms. Bynes subject to less media attention than Ms. Spears?
One significant difference between the two of them is that Britney Spears continued to work and generated millions of dollars of income per year. As she told the judge in June 2021, she had a city built around her of managers, publicists, dancers and even bus drivers that were all making money off of her work. Britney’s conservatorship was creating significant income so that everyone got paid, not least of all her conservators and their attorneys. However, Amanda Bynes retired from acting in 2010 and her income during that time has been very modest. She focused her efforts on her own health, recovery from substance abuse, and even attending college to study fashion. Bynes and her relationship with her parents was much better than the situation Ms. Spears had to endure. For all intents and purposes, Bynes’ family did not get rich off their daughter and reap the same financial gain that caused Jamie Spears to be vilified. In the end, Bynes benefited from her conservatorship and she publicly acknowledges that.
Many legal observers see Amanda Bynes and her conservatorship as the exception to the norm, and a rare success story in a system in dire need of reform. Britney Spears was rich and famous but still subject to the abuses of the legal process related to guardianships and conservatorships. Imagine the plight of those who do not have the financial resources to protect themselves.
In Michigan, the “conservator of the estate” is simply referred to as a conservator and the “conservator of the person” is referred to as the guardian. 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). “The court may appoint a guardian if the court finds by clear and convincing evidence both that the individual for whom a guardian is sought is an incapacitated individual and that the appointment is necessary as a means of providing continuing care and supervision of the incapacitated individual, with each finding supported separately on the record.” MCL 700.5306(1).
Michigan law creates a number of procedural safeguards to prevent the unnecessary and summary grant of guardianships and/or conservatorships, including but not limited to:
- GUARDIAN AD LITEM: After a guardianship case is filed, “[u]nless the allegedly incapacitated individual has legal counsel of his or her own choice, the court shall appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the person in the proceeding.” MCL 700.5303(3). After a conservatorship is filed, “[u]nless the individual to be protected has chosen counsel, or is mentally competent but aged or physically infirm, the court shall appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the person in the proceeding.” MCL 700.5406(2). A guardian ad litem has the duty to inform the proposed ward of his or her rights and make recommendations to the court in his or her best interests.
- RIGHT TO JURY TRIAL: A person subject to a guardianship or conservatorship proceeding may demand a trial by a jury of 6 people instead of one judge to contest the petition against him or her.
- RIGHT TO COURT-APPOINTED COUNSEL: If the proposed ward cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one to protect and advocate for the ward at public expense.
- RIGHT TO ANNUAL ACCOUNTINGS, REPORTS AND INVENTORIES: On an annual basis, the guardian or conservator must file reports with the probate court indicating income and distributions, current accountings, and an evaluation of the condition of the ward.
- RIGHT TO FILE PETITION TO MODIFY OR TERMINATE CONSERVATORSHIP OR GUARDIANSHIP: Like Britney Spears and Amanda Bynes, the ward retains the right to make contact with the court and file pleadings to modify or terminate the conservatorship or guardianship after it is granted. A person under court supervision does not surrender all of his or her rights.
Our skilled probate lawyers have years of experience representing clients in contested guardianship and conservatorship proceedings. If you have further questions or need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.