A Los Angeles judge has ended the 13-year-old conservatorship that controlled the life of Britney Spears. “Effective today the conservatorship of the person and estate of Britney Jean Spears is hereby terminated,” Judge Brenda Penny said at a hearing.
The 39-year-old pop star was put under a legal guardianship after grappling with mental health issues. Spears has said that her father, who is her conservator, prevented her from having her IUD removed because he did not want her to have more children.
Spears has been trying to end her conservatorship for over a year in order to make her own life decisions. In the last few months, Spears was allowed to hire her own attorney and petitioned to have a certified public accountant take over control of her conservatorship after accusing her father James Spears of abuse.
James Spears has publicly denied these accusations. In late September, the judge suspended James Spears as his daughter’s guardian and named accountant John Zabel as the temporary conservator of Spears’ finances. Zabel will remain in place temporarily to help Spears with any lingering financial issues.
Judge Penny called the situation “toxic” and “not tenable” before suspending James Spears from his guardianship. CNBC says that this “case has led to larger inquiries about the current conservatorship system … particularly when it comes to entertainment icons who continue to perform and generate millions in income for their estates, even while under court oversight,” potentially enriching their court-appointed guardians. Spears’ estate was estimated to be worth over $50 million.
America’s guardianship system is badly broken, and court-appointed guardians have plundered thousands of helpless people, causing some to die. Some judges appoint their cronies to be guardians, who then take advantage of vulnerable people. Buzzfeed News describes shocking abuses, such as how guardians snatched a teenager with cerebral palsy from school and hid him from his parents; had a successful rheumatologist declared incapacitated after a bout of depression and deprived her of her million-dollar home; and caused the death of a middle-aged man under a do-not-resuscitate order that ignored his wife’s desperate pleas.
America’s guardianship system was intended to be used only in the rare situation where someone is totally incapacitated by a mental or physical infirmity. But it has grown into a vast, lucrative industry that has taken control of the lives of more than a million people, resulting in widespread theft, as well as abuse, neglect, and death for some people.
In local courts that hear guardianship cases, guardians, lawyers, and expert witnesses appear regularly before the same group of judges in an old-boy network tainted by conflicts of interest. They are often paid from the estate of the person whose freedom is taken away, creating perverse incentives to impose guardianships and perpetuate them.
“The judge knows the lawyers, the lawyers know each other,” said Ronald Denman, a former Florida prosecutor and attorney who has fought dozens of guardianships. “The amount of abuse is crazy. You’re going against a rigged system.”
Without being convicted of any crime, those declared incapacitated lose their fundamental constitutional rights. As Buzzfeed notes, “Most freedoms articulated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights are denied to people under full guardianship: They can lose their rights to vote, marry, start a family, decide where they live, consent to medical treatment, spend their money, seek employment, or own property.”
Thousands of professional guardians, lawyers, and corporations now control assets worth tens of billions of dollars. Some guardians have hundreds of people under their sway. And despite the perception that guardianship is for elderly adults approaching death, the system controls the lives of huge numbers of young people. As Buzzfeed News notes,
- People have been abused, neglected, and killed while living under guardianship. BuzzFeed uncovered 20 cases in which young or middle-aged people died under disturbing circumstances, including murder, severe neglect, or starvation. A 31-year-old man was abused by care home staff and buried in concrete for months before his conservator realized he was missing. No charges were brought against her and she remains in charge of 130 people.
- People under guardianship have been locked up and isolated from their families and friends, with guardians obtaining restraining orders to keep their family members away. One professional guardian concealed the whereabouts of a woman’s teenage son and stated, “I’m mom now.” She said she had no problem putting “the noose around” the mother’s “neck and tightening it” to keep them away from each other. In many states, guardians can force people to get implanted with contraceptive devices and be permanently sterilized. The owner of a big guardianship corporation was awarded control of hundreds of people, including youths, despite having been accused of domestic abuse and assaults against kids over and over again.
- Guardians have had dozens of younger people placed under do-not-resuscitate orders (DNRs). That includes people who have a mental illness but are physically healthy, and blocking their access to potentially lifesaving treatment. Several middle-aged people, including a former space shuttle scientist, died under such orders.
- Professional guardians have stolen tens of millions of dollars from hundreds of people and taken advantage of trust fund statutes to conceal their theft from courts. One conservator nonprofit drained the accounts of over 800 people, while another professional conservator shifted money from several people’s accounts to a trust controlled by her spouse.