No one inspires Explainer readers quite like Britney Spears. In the past year, her antics have spurred questions about involuntary commitment, restraining orders, hair-based drug tests, and the supposed dangers of parental nudity. Now the pop star’s father, James Spears, has been named her temporary “conservator.” What’s that?
A court-appointed custodian for a needy adult. Often this comprises two distinct roles: As “conservator of estate,” he manages his ward’s financial assets by paying bills, filing taxes, making investments, and directing any contract negotiations; as “conservator of person,” he assumes responsibility over his dependent’s access to food, clothing, housing, and medical care. Usually, the guardian is a relative (a spouse, parent, or sibling), but sometimes a lawyer or other professional steps in to supervise money matters.
A would-be conservator must convince a judge that his prospective ward is “incapacitated”—that he or she lacks the ability to meet essential requirements for health and safety without assistance. For instance, a husband could become his wife’s guardian if she had advanced Alzheimer’s; a parent may act as conservator for a developmentally disabled child. Poor judgment alone, like dating a paparazzo when you’re a celebrity, is not sufficient cause. Courts may also grant conservatorship in cases of “undue influence,” like if someone joins a cult and is in serious need of deprogramming.
Exact legal procedures vary somewhat between states, but all jurisdictions require a multistep review. A relative, health-care administrator, or other interested person files a petition with a probate court using medical evidence, like a doctor’s note, to demonstrate incapacity. Then the court appoints a lawyer, a social worker, or both to conduct an independent investigation. If the subject consents or isn’t coherent enough to respond one way or the other, there’s a brief hearing with sworn testimony to support the allegations. Otherwise, there’s a full trial with lawyers on both sides; the evidence must be clear and convincing. Courts may appoint a temporary conservatorship without hoopla to prevent imminent harm, but must hold a hearing within about six weeks to review or extend the arrangement.
A conservator’s work is never over. He must report back to the court periodically (every year, in some states) to account for his actions. And his powers aren’t unlimited: He must obtain prior authorization to change the incapacitated person’s residence to another state, or to change the person’s marital status, for example. Meanwhile the conservatee can lobby to terminate or modify the guardianship.
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Explainer thanks Jennifer Rouse of Johnson, Fort, Meissner, Joseph & Palley.