Trigger warning: mentions of depression, substance abuse, and suicide below.
In this article:
- Celebrity conservatorships, especially that of recently-emancipated Britney Spears, have pushed the existence of conservatorships (and the issue in its broken systems) into the limelight.
- Across the U.S., an estimated 1.3 million people live under a conservatorship, though most don’t have a lot in common with the beloved pop star.
- Through the four celebrity cases explored below, we can see how conservatorships can do some good, but how they are, for the most part, a gray topic.
- The truth is that the legal arrangement is only one side of a complex set of issues that needs to have a deeper discussion for the benefit of the most marginalized.
Britney Spears has been a free woman for a few months now — making #FreeBritney no longer a rallying cry, but a fact after 13 long years of a conservatorship that Britney herself has described as abusive and traumatizing.
The conservatorship, which Judge Brenda Penny said was “no longer required, effective immediately” last November, made it so that Britney did not have control over her own finances, personal life, and medical decisions since 2008.
Though her team had insisted that the conservatorship was a positive arrangement over the past decade, the grueling details of Britney’s life under the control of other people have recently come to light.
In her heart-breaking testimony, the pop legend spoke about being forced to go on tour, taking medication she didn’t consent to, and going into rehab even when she didn’t drink. She was prohibited from going where she wanted.
If nothing else, the terrible reality of the last 13 years of Britney’s life, supposedly meant to protect her from herself after a mental breakdown that the media feasted over, has shed light on a little-understood legal concept.
First, What Is a Conservatorship?
For those of us who aren’t lawyers in the state of California, conservatorships — also called “deputyship” in the UK and “guardianship and administration” in Australia — are a legal ruling that allows judges to appoint a guardian or protector for those deemed incapable of managing their own life.
Those who are under a conservatorship are called “conservatees,” though sometimes the word “ward” can also be used for minors. Currently, an estimated 1.3 million adults are under a conservatorship in the US.
Some conservatorships might only cover financial decisions, while others focus on medical choices. In the case of Britney, her conservatorship was divided into two: one for her estate, which included all her income and financial decisions, and one for her person, which involved her health, wellbeing, and living arrangements.
But most people under conservatorships don’t have a lot in common with Britney. In the state of California, most conservatees are either people with developmental disabilities over the age of 18 or elderly people, many of whom have dementia.
For the former, parents tend to seek out conservatorships to help manage the affairs of their adult children, who may not be capable of deciding for themselves. Conservatorships for the latter, meanwhile, are set up to help protect older adults from financial abuse.
The Deal With Celebrity Conservatorships
Celebrity conservatorships are a class of their own for two reasons.
Firstly, a handful of the celebrities placed under conservatorships do not fit into the regular demographic of conservatees — they do not have developmental disabilities nor dementia. But what makes judges rule for conservatorships is that the conservatee must be proven unable to meet their own basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, and that’s an extreme that the pressure of fame might push people to.
We know, for instance, that living under the spotlight can be taxing on one’s mental health. Recently, celebrities have come forward with their own stories of major mood disorders and addictions, among others, and these don’t go away when they step out of the public eye. In some cases, they only get worse as an individual grapples with the loss of fame.
These mental health issues can make them candidates for conservatorships, should concerned individuals think they’re no longer able to meet the basic needs listed above.
Secondly, they’re special because they are in the limelight. Just as their self-disclosure of mental health issues might encourage people to learn more about mental health disorders and seek help for themselves, celebrities being placed under conservatorships brings to light not just the existence of conservatorships, but also how the system might be broken.
The sad reality is that disabled folks and elderly people tend to be among the least visible and most stigmatized of us, and so issues concerning them — including conservatorships — tend to fly under the radar.
This isn’t to say that the terrible 13 years of Britney’s conservatorship were a good thing, but it does open the door to more conversations about what conservatorships are, and the many issues with the legal framework that have made it susceptible to abuse.
The call for conservatorship reform isn’t new, but it’s definitely gotten a lot louder because people know and care about Britney.
All that said, celebrity conservatorships give us a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the legal arrangement, and what we can do to better take care of people who need our help.
Conservatorships aren’t just there to reduce people’s autonomy and for sketchy fathers to have way too much control over their pop star daughters. Sometimes, they’re placed to support someone during a difficult time in their lives, in their old age, or in especially worrying instances of physical or mental illness.
In 2015, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell suffered a severe brain aneurysm. This left her unable to speak or walk at 71 years old. As recently as 2020, Joni had said she was still struggling to walk, though she’s been well enough to make some public appearances and approve archival projects since the incident.
At the time, a close friend of hers, Leslie Morris, was appointed her conservator to ensure her care, maintenance, and support. Morris had filed for a conservatorship because Mitchell does not have close family who can legally support her in her recovery.
As conservator, she didn’t ask for control of Mitchell’s estate. Instead, she is in charge of health and personal care, as well as everyday meals, living arrangements, and housekeeping.
According to court papers, her lawyer had said, “She also told me that she (Mitchell) receives excellent care from caregivers around the clock.”
Sometimes, someone can also request to be put under a conservatorship. This was the case for Randy Meisner, bassist, singer, and founding member of the Eagles.
In 2016, his wife Lana Meisner passed away in a tragic accidental shooting. This was devastating for Randy, who had already been suffering from alcohol dependence, manic-depressive disorder, and suicidal episodes before then.
Shortly afterward, he volunteered to go under a temporary conservatorship, reportedly telling the judge, “I just want to get over this, I’m in a lot of pain right now.” In this way, the conservatorship became a tool for him to get help.
His long-time friend, Arthur Ford, was then put in charge of his health and wellness, while his accountant Tom DeLong became the conservator of his finances.
In most other cases, however, celebrity conservatorships can be a messy affair. Though what we know about Britney’s conservatorship points to the bad and the ones above point to the good, the reality is that conservatorships can be a very complex issue, as seen in the cases below.
Hailed as one of the most innovative songwriters of the 20th century, Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson was, for a long-time, under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy, a popular celebrity therapist.
He had treated the likes of Alice Cooper and Richard Harris, but Landy, unfortunately, misdiagnosed Wilson’s hallucinations and other mental distress episodes as paranoid schizophrenia. He had also subjected the songwriter to radical 24-hour therapy programs, and his influence on Wilson — as well as fees charged and medications prescribed — grew over time.
At one point, the therapist even lived with Wilson and became his executive producer, business manager, and musical collaborator. This, alongside his exorbitant fees, raised more than a few eyebrows, especially among Wilson’s family and friends, who weren’t allowed into the mansion where Wilson lived with Landy and Landy’s aides.
The therapist, whose license has since been revoked, had also cut off Wilson’s contact with them. He basically controlled Wilson’s every move — all without being his conservator.
In the ‘90s, Wilson’s brother and cousins filed a lawsuit to grant him a conservator and place a restraining order on Landy. A statement released at the time reads, “Brian Wilson has entered into a settlement agreement which will allow Brian to receive guidance and assistance while at the same time allowing him the freedom to lead his own life as he chooses.”
But Wilson’s troubles didn’t end with a conservatorship. By 1995, he sued a former conservator for not having his best interests at heart.
Amanda Bynes’s conservatorship is an interesting case given the similarities she has with Britney, but how distinct the difference is between their respective conservatorships.
Like Spears, Bynes was a former child star who became a conservatee because family members were concerned over her deteriorating mental health. In 2014, she was diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder and details of her drug addiction began surfacing.
She had initially been placed under emergency conservatorship in 2013, but bizarre behavior the year after — including reported shoplifting, attacking a woman inside a nightclub, and exorbitant spending — led to her being placed into a conservatorship once more, as the court believed that she posed “a substantial risk to herself, to others, and to property.”
Her mother, Lynn Organ, became her conservator, though she gave up her estate conservatorship in 2017. Now, she’s only in charge of her daughter’s medical and personal affairs.
Perhaps where Spears and Bynes’s paths diverged is in how they were seen after their conservatorships were in place. On the outside, Britney seemed to be putting her life back together and continued to perform in packed venues, though we know now that she was not okay for much of it. And when she started being more vocal about wanting out, people heard her more.
In contrast, Bynes has led a bit more private life when she wasn’t posting bizarre tweets accusing her father of abuse, and then retracting and explaining that it was all due to a microchip in her brain.
Since then, however, she’s focused on earning an associate’s degree from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, and has spoken about how ashamed and embarrassed she feels about her outbursts.
She’s also expressed gratitude to her parents for helping her get sober, and to get her life back on track.
In 2020, Bynes took to Instagram to say that she wanted to end her conservatorship because she wanted to marry her boyfriend and couldn’t do so under the legal arrangement.
She also cited the costs of her going to a treatment center, but she remained under conservatorship.
Though a court ruling had tentatively extended her conservatorship until 2023, Bynes filed a petition to end the legal arrangement just last month — a move that her parents are wholly supportive of.
Without the updates from the last five years, it would be easy for the public to think that Bynes was abused by her father the same way Britney was, but reports now point to her making a full recovery after a period of intense distress.
What’s Next for Conservatorships?
The high-profile case of Britney’s conservatorship has helped launch the legal arrangement — and the issue of conservatorship abuse — to public consciousness.
Under this new spotlight, lawmakers are pushing for reforms in a system that many advocates have long pointed out can harm the people it’s supposed to protect. California, for example, legislated greater scrutiny of financial, physical, or mental abuse among conservatees, and ensured conservatees’ right to choose their own attorneys — something that Britney was only able to do in July of 2021.
These reforms follow similar moves by states like Nevada and New Mexico, which had uncovered a $10 million embezzlement scheme that preyed on the old and the sick.
But disability rights advocates say there’s so much more that needs to be done to protect people like Britney and, more crucially, the millions who don’t have the same resources or fame. Some critics have said that California’s new conservatorship legislation only puts unhoused people at greater risk. And this goes beyond the legal.
What’s needed, more than ever, are accessible housing and a robust mental healthcare system that is better equipped to help individuals — whether or not they are deemed in need of a conservator.