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#FreeBritney – Guardianship, Conservatorship and Mental Illness

Entertainment news has been dominated this year by stories about Britney Spears and her fight to have her father, Jamie Spears, removed as the co-conservator of her assets. Currently, Britney’s assets are managed by two co-conservators – Jamie Spears and Bessemer Trust. Interestingly, Britney does not seem to fight to have her rights restored from the conservatorship itself; she just wants her father removed as one of her conservators. 

Several people have asked for my thoughts on this situation, and I really do not know enough about Britney’s personal circumstances or California law to give any meaningful opinion. I do think, however, that recent articles highlight a few important points about guardianships and conservatorships. 

  • Protective proceedings are not reserved for elderly individuals
    with dementia.

Our office receives a surprising number of telephone calls from individuals needing help with an adult child with mental illness. Typically, the adult child is college age and just suffered a psychotic break. The adult child may not have a history of mental illness or of having received psychiatric care as a child. A medical provider has advised the family to obtain a guardianship for this adult child without realizing that this is not the proper remedy.

  • A guardian cannot force someone to receive psychiatric treatment. In Georgia, a person can only be required to take medication or receive other treatment for mental illness through involuntary commitment.

Different laws govern the involuntary treatment of individuals suffering from a mental health crisis and those who need a guardianship because they cannot make “significant responsible decisions” concerning their health and safety or the management of their financial affairs in Georgia. 

Families who want an individual with mental illness to receive treatment must go through the involuntary commitment process. To satisfy the requirement for involuntary commitment, the individual must be a danger to herself or others or so unable to care for their physical health or safety that their life is in danger. An individual who is mentally ill but able to manage daily life may not be eligible for involuntary commitment. 

Family and friends can use one of three different methods to begin the process of involuntary commitment. First, two people with personal knowledge of the individual’s illness and having witnessed the seriousness of the condition within the last 48 hours go to the Probate Court in the jurisdiction where the individual can be found and request that the court issue an Order to Apprehend. Once an order is issued, law enforcement will take this individual to a local facility for an evaluation as to whether additional treatment is needed. Alternatively, the family can contact law enforcement directly, and law enforcement may then take the individual to the hospital for evaluation for an involuntary commitment. Finally, a doctor may request an involuntary commitment by completing a 1013 request form (called informally a 1013). The individual may be held up to 48 hours or, if the doctor so orders, up to seven days.  If additional treatment is required, the doctor or psychologist and chief medical officer may petition the court to extend the involuntary treatment.

When considering involuntary commitment, there are two important points to note. First, the treating physicians, not the family, control whether and for how long someone receives treatment. Second, the individual receiving involuntary treatment can grant or deny their treating physicians permission to speak with her family members. Families find this process very frustrating because they have no control over the type of treatment a family member receives, and they may even be denied information about the diagnosis or treatment plan.

In these circumstances, a limited guardianship can provide much needed support for an individual with a mental illness who is undergoing involuntary treatment or who generally lacks the ability to understand the world around them. For example, a guardian can communicate with physicians about the individual’s treatment during the commitment. The guardian can find appropriate housing for the individual when inpatient treatment ends. Guardianships have their limits, however. A guardian cannot force the individual to take medication or attend therapy outside of the commitment. 

In Georgia, young adults like Britney do not usually require a conservator to manage their assets simply because they do not own anything. Britney signed her first multi-million dollar singing contract at age 15, and she continues to receive royalties for her music. As long as she lacks the capacity to manage her funds, she will need a conservator to act on her behalf.

  • Should Brittany be allowed to select her conservator?

This issue harkens back to a recent blog post about the “Downside of Gifting” – how much deference do we assign to an individual who has a medical condition that impairs her ability to make an informed decision? We all dislike or distrust other individuals to some degree. I have represented mentally ill clients who clearly articulated why they believed that they or family members were being financially exploited, and they were even able to provide evidence supporting their claims. Mental illness may impair Britney’s judgment, but she may have a perfectly valid reason for not wanting her father in this role.

Unfortunately, I do not have a great solution for this question as to how much input a court should receive from Britney or any other person in a conservatorship (also known as a “ward”) as to who should manage their assets. On one hand, the court has oversight over how a conservator manages the ward’s assets, and this oversight should prevent misuse of the ward’s funds. On the other hand, is it respectful to the ward to force a continued intimate financial relationship with someone the ward does not like or trust? Will removing Jamie Spears as a co-conservator resolve Britney’s concerns, or will Britney simply complain about the remaining conservator? 

My heart goes out to my clients with mentally ill family members. Mental health issues are inherently complex, and current law only offers an incomplete solution to their problem of how to help someone who lacks capacity to understand the world around them. I am proud that we have been able to help families obtain protective measures to provide their adult children with supportive measures that improve their children’s quality of life. I hope that better treatment options will help alleviate the need for involuntary commitment in the future. 

Sources:

Bianca Betancourt, “Why Longtime Britney Spears Fans Are Demanding to #FreeBritney,” Harper’s Bazaar (Mar. 3, 2021) https://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/a34113034/why-longtime-britney-spears-fans-are-demanding-to-freebritney/)

GeorgiaLegalAid.org, “What I should know about involuntary treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues?” (Dec. 11, 2020) (https://www.georgialegalaid.org/resource/what-should-i-know-about-involuntary-treatment-for-mental-health-and-substance-abuse-issues)

Anastasia Tsioulcas, Judge Rules Against Britney Spears’ father in Conservatorship Dispute, NPR Music News (Feb. 11, 2021) (https://www.npr.org/2021/02/11/967176455/judge-rules-against-britney-spears-father-in-conservatorship-dispute)