By: Alaska Samuels
California courts “freed” Britney Spears, a groundbreaking step forward in the world of conservatorship law, but the fight is far from over for individuals remining in improper conservatorships nationwide. Recently, following a decision by the court to suspended Jamie Spears as a conservator on Britney Spears’ conservatorship, the court terminated her conservatorship completely. This decision comes after a thirteen-year struggle for her freedom, much of which was kept hidden from the public by her conservators and the court. All the attention given to Spears’ situation brings to light the nearly impossible fight others must face to contest a conservatorship; except they are not international celebrities with millions of dollars and a massive fanbase.
Conservatorships, or guardianships depending on state law and the age of the conservatee, are a legal process intended to protect a person who is incapable to taking care of themselves, whether it be financially or physically, such as not being able to feed or house themselves. A judge appoints a protector, or conservator, who, under the supervision of the court, manages the financial affairs and/or daily life of another person, the conservatee. However, since the creation of conservatorship laws nationwide, they have gone essentially unchecked with very little progress to accompany advancements in fields relevant to these appointments; the last major change happened more than 30 years ago. This was in 1987 following an Associated Press study on conservatorship laws where a requirement that the incapacitated person must be notified of the conservatorship proceeding and be present if they so choose was added.
California conservatorships operate as they do in most states, with either a conservatee or someone on their behalf filing a petition to establish and appoint a conservator. This petition must include reasons for the conservatorship with supplemental information to address why the appointment is required. Once a date is set for court, a court investigator will conduct interviews, review the allegation, and determine the wishes of the conservatee. After all this information is collected and given over to the court, a judge will hold a hearing where they decide whether to implement a conservatorship. After the establishment of a conservatorship, the court will periodically review the conservatorship, although this is largely handled by a court investigator reviewing and relaying their findings to the judge.
The #FreeBritney movement brought nationwide attention to conservatorship laws in all states, but naturally California’s law attracted the most scrutiny following Britney Spears’s claims of conservator abuse in June 2021. In response to this scrutiny, California Governor Gavin Newson signed a new law to reform conservatorships. This new law focuses on removing ambiguities in the current law, which are often exploited to allow for abuse of the conservatorship system. Governor Newson’s intentions with this law were to ensure that someone was accountable for how conservatees were treated throughout the conservatorship process and to establish a system with more transparency. Britney’s case clearly demonstrated the danger a lack of transparency in a conservatorship as it allows abuse to go unnoticed. The law amended several aspects of both the Business and Professions Code and the Probate Code. One addition the law made was establishing a fine of $10,000 “if the court finds that a conservator who is a professional fiduciary has abused a conservatee.” The law also authorizes “an interested person, as defined, with personal knowledge of a conservatee to petition the court to investigate an allegation of physical abuse or financial abuse of a conservatee by a conservator, and . . . require[s] the court to investigate those allegations that establish a prima facie case of abuse.”
While these changes are promising for the future of conservatorship laws, the new law fails to address some of the most common issues with conservatorships; the low threshold for what constitutes “legally incapacitated” and the lack of oversight or guidance given to judges to ensure conservatorships are being monitored properly. Firstly, the requirements to be considered “legally incapacitated” are remarkably low. In California, the law is extremely broad when defining a person as incapacitated. The symptoms required by law range from the “inability to concentrate in order to immediately recall short term memories” to the “ability to reason logically.” These definitions are extremely vague and leave open the possibility of someone being appointed a conservator when it is not truly necessary.
Secondly, judges have an enormous amount of discretion in deciding how conservatorships are monitored. In California, conservatorships are reviewed six months and one year after a conservator is initially appointed, but from that point on the judge can decide if a review is needed once a year or once every two years. However, no court hearing is required unless someone petitions the court for one.  If a conservatee wishes to have a court date to review the conservatorship, they would have to go through the stressful and financially difficult process of obtaining a lawyer and advocating for themselves, all while under the thumb of a conservator who may not want this review to take place and can take steps to prevent this. Even if a review is brought, there is no guarantee that there would be a different outcome from the yearly or biannual review done by the court investigator, especially as the threshold for a conservatorship is incredibly low and the court has already decided that a conservatorship was necessary.
The new California law fails to solve or even address these issues, leaving many people exceptionally vulnerable to those that wish to abuse or take advantage of them. Conservatorship laws need heavy revision, including changes increasing the responsibilities of judges and court investigators to remedy the lack of accountability in the system, to ensure that the laws created to protect a class of individuals do not allow for them to be used to abuse and neglect these same people.
 Britney Spears’ Father Suspended as Conservator, BBC News (Sept. 30, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-58742331.
 Id. See also Doha Madani, Bianca Seward, & Morgan Sung, Britney Spears Free from Conservatorship, Judge Rules, NBC News (Nov. 13, 2021), https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/pop-culture-news/prewrite-britney-spears-conservatorship-termination-hearing-rcna4481 (elaborating on the details of this specific hearing).
 See Bianca Betancourt, Why Longtime Britney Spears Fans are Demanding to #FreeBritney, Bazaar (Sept. 29, 2021), https://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/a34113034/why-longtime-britney-spears-fans-are-demanding-to-freebritney/ (noting even Britney Spears’s case was not looked at critically until fans began to protest).
 See Aaron Larson, What is a Conservatorship, Expert Law (May 7, 2018), https://www.expertlaw.com/library/estate_planning/conservatorship.html (outlining the basics of conservatorship law); see generally, Belle Wong, Conservatorship vs. Guardianship, Legal Zoom (Oct. 23, 2020), https://www.legalzoom.com/articles/conservatorship-vs-guardianship (describing the main differences between conservatorships and guardianships).
 See Matthew Talbot, When You Need a Conservatorship and What to Do If It’s Contested, Talbot Law Group (June 3, 2016), https://www.matthewbtalbot.com/blog/2016/6/2/contested-conservatorship.
 See generally Bob Dvorchak, Brief Looks at Guardianship in Some States with Guardians of Elderly I, Bjt, AP News (Sept. 19, 1987), https://apnews.com/article/4c1eedcb2002530127118972b3f7c05c (elaborating on the many pitfalls of conservatorship laws around the country).
 See id. (explaining that even with this new requirement “the investigators appointed by the courts to protect the rights of the elderly waive the proposed ward’s right to attend court competency hearings”).
 See Cal. Prob. Code § 1820 (West 1990).
 See § 1821(a).
 See § 1826 (explaining the extensive responsibilities of the court investigator).
 See § 1827.
 See § 1850.
 See Victoria Colliver, Newsom Signs #FreeBritney Bill to Help Reform Conservatorship Laws, Politico (Sept. 30, 2021), https://www.politico.com/states/california/story/2021/09/30/newsom-signs-freebritney-bill-to-help-reform-conservatorship-laws-9427463 (providing a limited history of the #FreeBritney movement leading to the new reform).
 Colliver, supra note 14.
 See id.
 See generally Jem Aswad, Britney Spears Asks for Conservatorship Case to be Open to the Public, Variety (Sept. 3, 2020), https://variety.com/2020/biz/news/britney-spears-conservatorship-open-to-public-1234759047/.
 See generally Cal. Legis. Serv. Ch. 417 (A.B. 1194) (2021) (making amends to various elements of California statutes).
 See Cal. Prob. Code § 811 (West 1996).
 See § 1850 (failing to place clear limits on judicial discretion).
 See id. (explaining the requirements placed on the court following the original court hearing).
 See generally § 1851.
 See § 1850.5 (showing that the court has the power to do anything it wants regarding a conservatorship).
 See § 1851 (elaborating on the specific requirements of the court investigator when visiting the conservatee)
See generally Erica Loberg, Britney Spears Case Paves the Way for Fixing the Conservatorship System-but Corruption Runs Deep, MarketWatch (Oct. 27, 2021), https://www.marketwatch.com/story/britney-spears-case-paves-the-way-for-fixing-the-conservatorship-systembut-corruption-runs-deep-11634858985?mod=retirement (providing context for how conservatorships affect every day people through the author’s own experience. “It was almost impossible to police the psychological abuse that occurred during my mother’s conservatorship.”).