Lessons about Conservatorship in Light of the #FreeBritney Movement

For ten years, singer-songwriter, Britney Spears, has been under the conservatorship of her father, and thanks to the recent New York Times documentary, “Framing Britney Spears,” the topic has been controversialized by the media. There has been a groundswell of support for Britney’s right to end conservatorship and regain control of her financial decisions, and this has even led to a public movement called #FreeBritney. Given all the media attention on the concept of conservatorship, we thought this would be a timely topic for our latest newsletter.

How does a conservatorship work?

Let’s begin by defining the term conservatorship. A conservatorship is a legal term in the United States that allows a judge to grant a guardian (or multiple guardians) full control over an individual’s finances if that person becomes incapacitated and is unable to make informed decisions regarding their finances, property, or business affairs, or if their assets would otherwise be wasted.

Conservatorships are established by court orders and are governed by various state laws. It is important to note that in Massachusetts, the individual’s spouse or parent does not automatically have these powers and may need to petition the court to handle the individual’s financial affairs. That said, it is common for a conservator to be a parent of a developmentally disabled adult or for an elderly person suffering from dementia, who may be at greater risk of financial abuse. Conservators report to the court that appointed them. A few high-profile celebrities, such as Britney Spears, have been assigned a conservator following struggles with mental health.

What’s the difference between conservatorship and guardianship?

A conservatorship differs from a guardianship. The latter is necessary when an individual no longer has the capacity to communicate or make informed decisions regarding their health, safety, and self-care. The guardian is a fiduciary appointed by the court who can make those decisions for the individual and may need to seek additional authority from the court to act in special situations such as for admittance to a skilled nursing facility, or to administer certain types of medications or special treatments. It is important to note that in Massachusetts a spouse does not automatically have these powers, nor does the parent of a disabled child once the child reaches the age of eighteen.

Who can be appointed guardian or conservator?

For a guardian, the incapacitated person may petition the court him/herself or any person interested in the welfare of the individual alleged to be incapacitated may petition the court to be appointed guardian. For a conservator, any individual may petition the court to have a conservator appointed for him/herself, or any person interested in the welfare of that person, such as a parent, guardian, custodian, or individual who would be otherwise adversely affected by dissipation or mismanagement of assets.

Should you find yourself in a position where you may need to be appointed as guardian or conservator for a friend or family member who does not have the capacity to make or communicate health care and/or financial decisions on their own, we, at Eckert Byrne, have the skills and compassion to assist you.

Eckert Byrne can assist you with petitioning the Probate & Family Court, whether it is for an aging adult who no longer has the capacity to make informed decisions, an incapacitated minor turning eighteen years of age, or a minor who may require a court appointed fiduciary to access inherited funds. Once the guardian or conservator is appointed, we will assist with the annual reports and/or accountings required to be filed with the court.

To learn more, please reach out to our team. We would be happy to assist in any way or answer any questions you may have.


Eileen Curtin