While once the news was filled with reports of icon Britney Spears’s fantastic music, Las Vegas performances coupled with photos of erratic behavior, and mystifying social media posts, her name is currently synonymous with legal debates as to civil rights, autonomy, and, oddly enough, trusts and estates.
Instagram, newspapers, and even fellow superstars like Cher have voiced their concerns for Spears and her conservatorship, some even expressing objection. The American Civil Liberties Union, on August 19, 2020, tweeted that they were willing to help Spears regain her civil liberties and remove the conservatorship. The tremendous attention paid to Spears, including the #freebritney online campaign, brings important attention to the conservatorship, often called guardianship system.
Simply, when an individual is unable to provide for her personal and/or property needs, a conservator is appointed to assist. Depending on the functional limitations or disabilities of the individual, the conservator, sometimes called a guardian, can exercise total control, or perhaps limited control. Some courts tailor a guardianship to allow the guardian to only act on certain powers.
As a celebrity, the world is intrigued by Spears. We wonder, how is someone with such talent, work ethic, and wealth, in need of a conservator? How does someone who looks so good and healthy need assistance? If someone can work that hard and make that much money, how can they require a conservator? Finally, why does someone so young, with children, require so much assistance and court intervention?
Unfortunately, as the public we do not get to listen to the court hearings and read the confidential reports. As Phaedrus said, “Things are not always what they seem.”
What we do know is that a Los Angeles Court in 2008, after hearing copious amounts of testimony and evidence, decided that Spears required a conservator of her person and property. If we have faith in the justice system, we respect the findings of the court. Further, we know that this matter has remained under the supervision of the court for the past 12 years, with the conservators filings various accountings and reports and parties participating in court appearances.
As of August, the court has ruled that the conservatorship would be continued until at least February 2021. In the past, Spears has voiced her objection to the conservatorship, especially her father, Jamie Spears, serving as her sole property conservator. Spears’s family has been public with their concerns for their loved one, especially her brother Bryan and her sister, Jamie Lynn Spears who at 29 years old is the trustee of Spears’ SLB Revocable Trust. She has been trustee, according to court papers, for the past two years. Recently, Jamie Lynn has filed papers to move all the assets of the SJB Revocable Trust into one or more accounts that she has under her control, with Fidelity Brokerage Services. It is unclear at this point what further role Jamie Lynn will be taking with respect to the conservatorship or what such a transfer of assets would mean to the conservatorship.
Regardless of the legal maneuvers, Jamie Lynn’s very public support of her sister represents the qualities of a competent and sensitive sister and, in this case, trustee. She took to social media to respond to the #freebritney movement and other attention asking for privacy and inferring that their family is just trying to protect their loved one. Wisely she stated: “I pray this doesn’t bring shame to anyone dealing with mental illness, you are not alone, and you are loved.”
Jamie Lynn’s participation in the matter reveals that sometimes family members make good fiduciaries, even when we are dealing with millions upon millions of dollars and public scrutiny. A court should look to Spears’s case and see how she can best be protected, while also making certain that she is comfortable with those who are entrusted with her life management. Assigning a devoted relative, someone who shows compassion, but is strong enough to make decisions, is the right choice for any fiduciary role, whether it be a trustee, conservator, or executor. Sometimes in guardianships, the initial arrangements need tweaking. The personalities involved may not get along or there may diverge in opinions. As Spears ages, her desires may change, and she may better work with an individual different than whom she was assigned she was younger. Perhaps a child will become their parent’s conservator when they grow up. It is imperative that anyone who is subject to a conservatorship feel comfortable with their conservator, be able to speak to the fiduciary, and of course, feel like she is heard.
As the public, we do not know the details of Spears’s conservatorship nor do we know or should we know how she gets along with the various family members and other professionals working on her matter. From what we can see, her siblings are expressing great love and support to her and it would behoove any court to use them as best as they can. Sometimes the best guardians are third parties, separate and apart from the familial entanglements. And sometimes, it is more organic.
Cori A. Robinson is a solo practitioner having founded Cori A. Robinson PLLC, a New York and New Jersey law firm, in 2017. For more than a decade Cori has focused her law practice on trusts and estates and elder law including estate and Medicaid planning, probate and administration, estate litigation, and guardianships. She can be reached at [email protected].