My least favorite part of any newscast is “celebrity gossip.” Nonetheless, a story from that segment inspired this column.
The story of Britney Spears and her conservator recently dominated the celebrity gossip. However, I never heard anyone explain what a conservator is or does.
Britney’s case was handled under California law. I’m not a member of the California Bar, so I will discuss her situation as if it had occurred in Alabama. We can say that California law is similar to Alabama law because both states have adopted the Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act. This act suffers from perhaps the world’s most unlovely acronym, the “Uagppja.”
A conservator is someone appointed by a court to handle the business of a person who is unable to handle it for herself. Under Alabama law, a conservator is “A person appointed by the court to administer the property of an adult.”
Alabama law provides that a conservator can be appointed for a person who is “incapacitated.” That is defined as “Any person who is impaired by reason of mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, physical or mental infirmities accompanying advanced age, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, or other cause (except minority) to the extent of lacking sufficient understanding or capacity to make or communicate responsible decisions.”
The most common reason for a court to appoint a conservator is age-related dementia, but Britney’s case didn’t fall under that category. The court appointed her conservator when she was about 26 years old. Instead, her case was handled as “mental illness.”
Sometimes, the alleged incapacitated person cooperates with the effort to appoint a conservator, and sometimes, she fights it. Britney’s conservator was her father, and a person’s conservator usually is a close family member.
Appointing a conservator is a serious move. The conservator controls every aspect of the incapacitated person’s affairs. For this reason, the law imposes two protections.
First, the court will not appoint a conservator until after a hearing with notice to the alleged incapacitated person, and the court must find that the person meets the definition above and is indeed incapacitated.
Second, the conservator becomes a fiduciary for the incapacitated person, meaning that he can use his authority only in good faith and for the benefit of the incapacitated person, and is prohibited from abusing it for his own benefit. For instance, a conservator can’t use his authority to empty the incapacitated person’s bank accounts and steal her money.
Britney’s case was news recently because Britney petitioned the court to free her from the conservatorship. She alleged that her father had misused the conservatorship to bully and improperly control her and had wasted her assets. In Alabama, a conservator can be removed for “good cause.” Britney’s father asserts that he acted solely to help and protect Britney. The judge appears to have agreed with Britney’s allegations, because she suspended Britney’s father and appointed an interim conservator to serve until the next hearing. Since then, the judge terminated the conservatorship.