Who needs a conservatorship?

Conservatorships don’t often make the news. But that’s because most of them help families care for adults with disabilities or dementia—those who can’t care for themselves. Most conservatorships don’t involve young, iconic pop stars.

Britney Spears and her father recently brought conservatorships into the spotlight. The singer checked into a mental health clinic. Her father stepped aside from some of his duties as conservator. And the lawyer who had been helping him resigned. These unusual events fueled the #FreeBritney movement, whose supporters claim Spears has been manipulated. But they also raise important questions about California’s conservatorships.

What does a conservatorship do?

A conservatorship grants one adult the legal authority to care for another adult. The adult who receives this new legal authority is the “conservator.” The adult who receives the care is the “conservatee.” There are different forms of conservatorships, and the legal powers the conservator receives may vary.

In Britney Spears’ case, her father manages her finances and held legal control over many of her personal decisions. When he stepped aside, he temporarily gave up control of her personal decisions but retained control over her finances.

What are the different types of conservatorships?

California’s courts recognize several different forms of conservatorships. The first distinction is between probate conservatorships and Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) conservatorships:

  • These are the most common conservatorships. They’re generally created for people who are seriously impaired and unable to care for themselves. You might ask the court to appoint a conservatorship for an aging parent who suffers from dementia or a family member who suffered a traumatic brain injury.
  • These conservatorships may be granted for the care of adults who need serious mental health intervention. They often assign conservators the power to place conservatees in locked facilities and to approve the use of medications.

In addition, the courts may make the arrangements temporary or permanent. They may grant conservators broad or limited responsibilities. And they may limit the conservatorship to financial decisions, personal decisions or both.

Sometimes, a conservatorship may evolve. Spears was first placed in two temporary conservatorships before her father asked the court to make it permanent.

How do families create conservatorships?

There are two common ways that families may set up a conservatorship:

  • Make it part of an estate plan. You can name a conservator to manage your affairs in case you become unable to do so yourself.
  • Petition the court. The court can review the person’s case, create a conservatorship and appoint a conservator.

Conservators are commonly family members because of the deep trust that’s required. In some cases, people may not want family members to take control of their estates, or the family may need assistance.

For the good of the individual

Despite the scandal surrounding the Spears estate, conservatorships exist for the good of those they serve. They’re meant to help those who cannot help themselves, and the courts aim to provide just enough legal power for conservators to do what’s needed.

That’s why the Spears case drew so much attention. Her fans claimed the conservatorship was harming her rather than helping her. But that judgment doesn’t live with the fans. It lives with the court.