The legal act of someone being in control of another person’s daily life or finances, or conservatorship (also called guardianship) is not a new phenomenon. Conservatorship is appointed by a judge when a person is considered incapacitated or incapable of handling their life or finances without assistance. In a recent episode of The New York Times Presents titled “Framing Britney Spears,” they expose how guardianship can be abused and exploit the conservatee in question.
Britney Spears has been under conservatorship by her father, Jamie Spears, since 2008 after a judge declared her unfit to handle her personal and financial affairs. There’s been speculation that Britney is bipolar, but no confirmation has been given by the singer herself. Regardless, constant harassment by paparazzi for several years, the loss of her marriage and custody of her children, and misleading tabloids all led to a mental decline for the singer. One must be empathetic for her, as it’s incredibly difficult for any normal person to handle that kind of pressure, let alone a world-renowned celebrity. Despite being appointed a conservator, Britney’s backup dancer and tour director, Kevin Tancharoen stated that she was perfectly capable of making decisions, like deciding who to hire. She was also generous, as her friend recalled that she took out $10,000 in $100 bills and drove through her hometown of Kentwood, Louisiana handing money out to strangers.
It is suspicious that her father became her conservator despite not being involved much in her life. “The only thing Jamie ever said to me was, ‘My daughter’s going to be so rich, she’ll buy me a boat,’” Kim Kaiman, Senior Director of Marketing for Jive Records, said. Britney’s former co-conservator, Andrew Wallet, also asked the court to make the Spears estate a “hybrid business model.” In other words, her conservators were profiting off of her music.
In a rare interview shown in the documentary, Britney herself was able to express her feelings on the matter. “If I wasn’t under all the restraints that I’m under right now, with all the lawyers and doctors and people analyzing me every day and all that kind of stuff, if that wasn’t there, I’d feel so liberated and feel like myself,” Spears said. “When I tell them the way I feel, it’s like they hear me, but they’re really not listening. It’s bad—and I’m sad.”
There are many other examples of a guardian abusing their ward. One that comes to mind is Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys, whose conservator was Eugene Landy, his psychotherapist. Wilson was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and manic depression, as he started having auditory hallucinations in 1965 following heavy psychedelic drug use. After his father’s death in 1973, he became increasingly depressed and attempted suicide multiple times. Although Landy was successful in helping Wilson lose weight and get involved in music again, it came at a cost. “Dr. Landy doesn’t like me to be in touch with my family too much,” Wilson said. “He thinks it’s unhealthy.” Luckily, Wilson’s family defeated Landy in court after it was discovered that the therapist was a chief beneficiary in Wilson’s will, as well as overmedicating him. While there’s no confirmation of Landy’s ulterior motive, Wilson could have been killed by being overmedicated and much of his money would have been given to his conservator as a result.
Conservatorship can intrude not only on one’s finances, but their relationships as well. Sherry Brachfeld from Ontario was set to marry her fiancé, Jun Miyamoto, but Ontario’s Public Guardian and Trustee blocked her from doing so. “I should have the right to marry and live my life,” Brachfeld said. “I’m a human being. I have a right to be happy.” The woman has more than proven her independence, such as working at Tim Hortons for 11 years and living on her own in Israel for a few years. However, she is autistic with a mild intellectual disability and has some difficulty taking care of herself, which is how her mother, and later the Public Guardian, took charge of her life. If Brachfeld were to get married, her disability benefits would be revoked. The couple is still currently assessing what they should do.
An alternative to conservatorship exists, which is Supported Decision-Making. Generally, it helps a disabled person find tools and supports to help them understand, make, and communicate their own choices. In addition, they can choose trusted advisors such as friends, family, or professionals to help them make decisions. As opposed to conservatorship/guardianship, the disabled person makes the final choice about their own life. Not only can the disabled person change supporters whenever they wish, but they can add supporters and be assisted by multiple people as well. SDM is utilized in some capacity in every state but is just not as widely practiced as guardianship. Seeing as Spears, Wilson, and Brachfeld have demonstrated that they’re perfectly capable of making their own decisions with just a little assistance, this is a system they would have greatly benefitted from.
Although Brian Wilson was freed from the clutches of his conservator, Britney Spears and Sherry Brachfeld are not so lucky. As they are still young, only time will tell. Hopefully, they’ll be free to call themselves free citizens once again.