Key Takeaways From Britney Spears’ Conservatorship Case

Britney Spears performing in Concert in 2011

[Source: The Newsworthy]

Celebrity Divorce Lawyer Christopher C. Melcher Explains Conservatorships & Key Takeaways From Britney Spears’ Conservatorship Case

Lacey Evans: Today is Saturday, July 24th. And today we’re talking about the Free Britney movement. It’s a lot more than just a hashtag. Popstar Britney Spears has been wrapped up in a legal battle over her conservatorship for a while now. And new developments have been coming out every week. The conservatorship is an arrangement that’s given her father, Jamie, along with a licensed conservator control over Britney’s finances and other parts of her life since 2008. Originally, that arrangement was put in place because of concerns over Britney’s mental health and alleged drug use. But in the last few weeks, Britney has spoken in court saying she’s been exploited and bullied by the conservatorship for years. She says she’s been overworked without any breaks, forcibly medicated with lithium, and kept from having more children, among other things. And she wants control over her life back.

The whole saga has opened many people’s eyes to conservatorships for the first time and sparked a lot of conversations about personal freedoms. So today we’re talking to top family law attorney, Christopher C. Melcher of Walzer Melcher LLP (one of the best family law firms in California that handle several celebrity cases), who has been following Britney’s case closely. He explains why conservatorships exist, how they work, and his takeaways from the Britney Spears case.

Britney Spears case has drawn attention to conservatorships. Could you briefly explain for our audience what a conservatorship is and why someone would be put into one?

Christopher Melcher: A conservatorship is taking away the liberties of an adult and placing those rights into the hands of another. And that would be done when someone is unable to care for themselves.

We’re not talking about someone who makes poor decisions, has bad judgment, or has substance abuse problems, mental health problems alone. Those aren’t sufficient.

We really need to have a showing by what’s called clear and convincing evidence. It’s a very high standard of proof that this individual is incapable of caring for themselves, providing basics, like food, clothing, shelter, inability to resist fraud or undue influence. These people are sometimes gravely disabled or developmentally disabled. You should know within moments of interacting with this individual that they need a conservator. And in my view, if you can’t tell that so quickly they don’t.

Lacey Evans: Britney has spoken to the court detailing how this arrangement has done her more harm than good. So how much weight do these kinds of statements have in her case?

Christopher Melcher: She has made it clear finally on June 23 that she wants out of the conservatorship. And it wasn’t completely clear before that. And that’s what led to a lot of speculation and guarded opinion about the conservatorship because we didn’t know exactly how Britney felt about it until she spoke in court that day. The fact is is that there is a conservatorship order placed on her. There was never a capacity determination.

It’s what they’re calling a voluntary conservatorship. And the probate code does allow someone to consent to a conservator. That is another part of the law that makes no sense to me. How can someone who lacks capacity to make basic decisions over their life, like medical choices, have the capacity to agree to anything?

Lacey Evans: She says that she should be allowed out of this because she can work for herself, she can earn money for herself. Do you think that will be enough of a reason?

Christopher Melcher: The things that Britney said in court were coherent enough to show that she doesn’t need a conservator. That the fact that she’s been able to work in and of itself shows me that she doesn’t need a conservator over her person, meaning make medical decisions and whether she should get married or have a child. I mean, these basic liberties that we have. There’s no reason why she should have that. That should have been terminated immediately.

Then the next question is the conservator over her estate, which would mean the financial decision-making that’s now vested solely in her dad. Does she really need that? And the question is not whether she’s going to make good financial decisions or whether she’s financial genius, it’s whether she would be free of undue influence and fraud.

Somebody who has such a weakening of the mind that they could not even understand what they have and what the value of money is and they would just be immediately taken advantage of, it has to be at that level. And we haven’t seen evidence of that.

Lacey Evans: But she has also said she doesn’t want to go through any more mental evaluations or tests. So do you think the court will allow that?

Christopher Melcher: They should allow that. Why was the court willing to impose a conservatorship over her without a capacity determination by a doctor?

And then when she wants out of it says, “Oh, you need a medical evaluation.” That’s nonsense. That’s inconsistent. Now, the court hasn’t said yet that she needs it. And ordinarily, there probably would be a medical eval on somebody wanting to terminate.

But here, there wasn’t one to start it. So why should she need one to end it? We have somebody here who they’ve called in court papers highly functioning and can express themselves and say, “Hey, I want to make my own choices, and I’ll make them good or bad.” The court should honor that and she doesn’t need an evaluation.

And the court needs to act urgently and not just go through the motions and let another 13 years go by or even 13 days go by. It should be acting quicker.

Christopher Melcher: We are. It’s coming apart very quickly. This pressure now is magnified. There’s no escaping the scrutiny that’s placed on the case. And every day we learn something more about it that’s more frustrating or outrageous. We do see people exiting. Her court-appointed attorney, Samuel Ingham, was allowed to resign. Bessemer Trust was allowed to resign as a co-conservator of the estate. But Jamie hangs on despite massive criticism. Why would somebody want to be in a position where they’re unwanted?

He’s not speaking with his daughter on his own admission. There is no logical reason why he would continue on serving and failing to resign, in my mind, other than to continue on receiving massive amounts of fees for being in that role and also to keep covered the information that eventually will get out about what’s been happening with Britney all these years.

Lacey Evans: Because Britney’s case is so public, do you think this will affect other arrangements?

Christopher Melcher.: I hope it does. Out of every bad court case, we hopefully learn something and do better. That hasn’t always worked. But there are many people, there was some statistic over a million people in the United States under a conservatorship and some may need that. There are some adults who cannot care for themselves. There’s no doubt about that. But does the system help or hurt? And it can certainly help if the right people are placed in control. But how do we know that? And what oversight is really being done?

Under California law, there has to be periodic oversight by the court of every conservatorship. But what does that really look like? Is that taking the conservator’s word that everything’s fine? Does that have a brief visit by a social worker or mental health professional into the home and seeing the conservatee and saying everything’s fine? I don’t know how effective that is because if you take away the rights of an adult and place them in the hands of another and if that adult who’s being conserved has difficulty communicating, how do we know really what’s happening when that social worker or mental health professional walks out the door? How do we really know that the five minutes or 20 minutes that the court is giving in its annual oversight is really giving a window that’s accurate into this person’s life? We don’t. So there needs to be better and more regular oversight of these things so the people who are placed in the role of protecting aren’t abusing.

Lacey Evans: It sounds like you’re not denying that there are adults, people out there who do need this type of protection, but would you recommend a conservatorship or would you try to find them a different legal arrangement?

Christopher Melcher: There are different layers of protection. What exactly is the issue that the person’s experiencing? There are folks who can bathe themselves and take care of their regular needs and go to the doctor and make decisions, but they can’t take care of their finances. And we have that. We see that with elderly parents. We don’t just take their rights away. There can be a guardian. There could be a trustee. There could be some oversight there to keep them from being taken advantage of while still giving them the dignity that they have as a human being and not taking their liberty away. So we can look at this incrementally, like is this a temporary issue or a permanent one? If it’s temporary, the protection should only last as long as necessary, not forever. If it is more of a permanent thing, you have to use a light touch because there’s a balance between liberty and protection.

We have the right to make bad choices. There are plenty of folks out there who have horrific judgment but don’t need a conservator or any other type of legal protection. You have the right to go and blow all your money. You could give it away, you could burn it, you could bury it in the ground, or you can make good investment decisions. Those are your choices. You could listen to a doctor and follow the doctor’s advice, or you could say, “No, I’m not going to listen to the doctor, and I’m going to do my own thing.” These are rights that we have.

So a conservatorship is the last stop. It’s the most extreme measure. Should only be used sparingly when the evidence is clear and convincing that it’s needed. And the level of protection should only be so much as absolutely necessary with a lot of oversight. There are plenty of other options available under the law to provide protection for somebody that doesn’t involve stripping their liberty.

Lacey Evans: Thank you to Chris Melcher for sharing his legal opinion. An estimated 1.3 million adults in the U.S. are under similar conservatorships. And the Britney Spears case has inspired a bipartisan effort in Congress to change some of the rules about them. Lawmakers introduced the Free Britney Act this week. The measure would also assign a caseworker to look for signs of abuse in a conservatorship, and it would let someone under a conservatorship request a public guardian instead of a private one even if there isn’t evidence of fraud or abuse. We’ll keep you updated on that bill and whether it’s signed into law.