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Conservatorship

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The colorful antics of dysfunctional Hollywood celebrities are always a great source of voyeuristic entertainment and occasionally shadenfreude, but they can possibly lead to real problems for the rest of us. The Britney Spears melodrama may be one such case, as our craven, vote-hungry politicians react and pander.

For the few of you who weren't aware of this very publicized drama, Britney Spears is a famous pop star who melted down in 2008, lost custody of her kids, and was involuntarily placed in a mental hospital for a period. A conservatorship—a legal proceeding in which someone is court-appointed to handle the affairs of an incompetent—was established and her father appointed to be her conservator. She continued to perform while under conservatorship and made a lot of money.

Britney chaffed at being under conservatorship and proclaimed her mental competence. She occasionally ranted in court and in social media, sometimes posting nude photos apparently intended to prove her sanity. Her fans formed the #FreeBritney movement to advocate for the termination of the conservatorship, and after much drama, it was terminated in late 2021. Only time will tell if she is now capable of managing her own affairs. Los Angeles is full of charming opportunists awaiting the vulnerable, and Hollywood offers lots of opportunities to self-destruct and go broke.

I have more than just a casual interest, having practiced conservatorships and elder law for more than 40 years, including in Los Angeles, where I knew a couple of the key actors in Britney's proceeding during the 1990s. I was recently alarmed to read that some fans of pop star Britney Spears are advocating for the "reform" of California's conservatorship laws, and apparently have the ear of a politician. At the urging of the #FreeBritney group, and some disability rights advocates, California Assemblymember Brian Maienschein (D-San Diego) has announced his intention to introduce legislation reforming the current law, to correct what they see are defects in the current process.

Very few conservatorships offer this much drama or controversy. The typical one is for an elderly person with dementia, or who has otherwise become mentally incapacitated, and needs someone to make medical decisions and handle their business affairs. Sometimes, they are being exploited by opportunists such as a drug-addicted family member or "friend" and may have lost their homes or savings. A conservatorship is necessary to stop the victimization and to handle their affairs.

Relatively rarely a proposed conservatee objects to conservatorship. This is problematic because the mental disabilities that created the need for the conservatorship may also render them delusional or incapable of understanding their deficiencies, and they may be insistent upon doing dangerous or irrational acts. Or sometimes, they may instead actually be competent and just the subject of another's attempt to inappropriately control their affairs. Sometimes, they may vacillate from moment to moment on whether they're opposed. Especially in family affairs, it can be difficult to sort out needs and motives, especially when the fame, wealth, looks, or charisma of the conservatee distort the process.

The current conservatorship process is already complicated and hideously expensive, with thousands of dollars in court fees alone, and much more in attorney's fees. The conservatee must be periodically interviewed and evaluated by a court investigator, and detailed periodic accountings must be filed and examined by the court, fees approved, and hearings held. Almost every substantial act of the conservator, such as selling assets or moving the conservatee, must be approved by the court.

Many people who need a conservatorship are unable to afford one because the cost would quickly exhaust their assets. The last time the Legislature "reformed" the process, it became even more expensive and inaccessible. Conservatorships are necessary, but what good is a protective process that few can afford? I hope we are spared the destructive effects of politicians who have no understanding of the process and are blindly implementing the demands of a pop star's fans.

The public reaction to Britney's drama has been sharply divided, with one side arguing "it's her money and her life, and she should be allowed to do whatever she wants," while the other argues that society should protect the vulnerable from themselves. One side saw her emotional tirades as confirmation that she should be freed, while the other saw them as proof she was crazy. Conservatorships comes down to a general philosophical question of personal autonomy and whether or not society ought to intervene in really bad decisions. My guess is that we're split roughly 50/50.

Ironically, I come down in the "protect" side, despite my usual libertarian leanings (with apologies to frequent libertarian commenter Gail Lightfoot, who finds me insufficiently doctrinaire). I have just seen so much exploitation that, despite my usual deference to Darwinian process and opposition to liberal paternalistic government, I think the truly vulnerable should be protected. Still, it is hard to not empathize with those who object to a "Big Brother" government injecting itself into one's choices, especially since the issue of mental competence is so subjective.

Your thoughts? Δ

John Donegan is a retired attorney in Pismo Beach who promises he will never post nude photos of himself to prove his sanity. Send thoughts for publication to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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