MONDAY, Oct. 18, 2021 (HealthDay News) — Pop singer Britney Spears was at the height of her fame in 2008 when, through a series of arcane legal maneuverings, her father gained conservatorship over her and took control of her personal and financial affairs.
Spears’ plight and the #FreeBritney movement has shone a bright spotlight on America’s guardianship system, which experts say is shrouded in secrecy, ripe for abuse and in desperate need of reform.
About 1.3 million guardianship or conservatorship cases are active at any given time in the United States, managing assets that total at least $50 billion for people whose rights have essentially been stripped from them, according to the National Council on Disability.
Most guardianships are run by family members and benefit the person who’s been placed under one, but high-profile cases like Spears’ have shown the potential for financial exploitation under such arrangements, Dr. Sam Sugar, founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, said in an interview with HealthDay Now.
The system “has been perverted from the laws that were supposed to help people into laws that are subverted into a money-making scheme, because guardianship is all about money — particularly professional guardianships that result in the abuse and exploitation of the very people who are vulnerable,” Sugar said.
Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, convinced a judge to place her in a conservatorship following a series of public outbursts from the singer that left some questioning her judgment.
The California state paperwork noted “dementia” as the cause for Spears’ conservatorship, but “I think it was more about the tail end of her making what was deemed inappropriate choices in terms of how she was spending her money, who she was spending her time with,” said Jasmine Harris, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law and an expert on disability law.
Spears’ father controlled her career and her finances until early this month, when a judge ordered that he be suspended from her conservatorship.
Spears case shines new light
Spears had fought her conservatorship for years, but only months ago had been allowed to speak for herself in court, Harris noted.
“We’re only talking about this because in June, Britney Spears had the opportunity to speak to the public and the court directly,” Harris told HealthDay Now. “That transparency and accountability is vital in an institution like guardianship.”
Most Americans who wind up in a guardianship are suffering from medical problems that could impair their decision-making ability, Harris and Sugar said.
These include young adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities, seniors afflicted with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and people suffering from severe mental illness.
“The state has this interest in protecting the interests of people deemed to lack legal capacity. That could be children. That could be older adults. Most often, people with disabilities,” Harris said.
Many times, a guardianship is placed on a special education student who turns 18, after their school district suggests the move to a parent, Harris said.
The districts say, “Look, your child is reaching the age of majority [turning 18], if you want to stay involved in their health and education you need to go to court and ask for a guardianship,” Harris said.
But people also are placed in guardianships for more vague reasons related to their personal decisions and actions, Harris added.
Watch the HealthDay Now interview on conservatorships below: