Britney Spears documentary brings light to serious guardianship questions
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Britney Spears documentary brings light to serious questions

  • By:Neil Lyons

Have you heard about the documentary “Framing Britney Spears”? The documentary, which is part of The New York Times Presents series, is about the life of late 1990’s/early 2000’s pop star Britney Spears.

Full disclosure: Being a huge fan of extreme metal music, I was never fond of Britney Spears’ music. There is no doubt, however, that she was astronomically popular during the height of her career.

Despite my preference for death metal, I found the documentary compelling — especially regarding the legal issues Britney is facing.

Mental breakdown led to ‘Toxic’ situation

You may not know this, but since 2008, Britney has been under a conservatorship in California. In Florida, this is known as guardianship. The documentary, streaming on FX and Hulu, describes conservatorship as “unique legal arrangements usually designed for elderly people who are unable to take care of themselves or their money.” 

Essentially, at the age of 26, Britney was determined to be incapacitated by a California Court. Fiduciaries were appointed to manage and control her person and finances. The documentary does a good job rehashing some of the many events that lead to what the tabloid press and entertainment media would label a mental breakdown. Britney’s mental breakdown is what led her father to petition for conservatorship. 

Her father alleged that Britney’s diminished mental state left her vulnerable to exploitation and undue influence. The Court agreed and appointed Britney’s father as her conservator. She is not in control of the money she earned as a star performer.

So, could what happened to Britney in California happen to her here in Florida?

Incompetent, or ‘Overprotected’?

In the United States, adults are considered competent enough to make their own decisions. These decisions include those that most of us might consider irresponsible.

However, sometimes chronic cognitive decline or impairment can cause someone to make irresponsible decisions, or make decisions that are harmful to their person or property. In those scenarios, when no one else has been pre-determined to make decisions on an incapacitated person’s behalf, a court may find it appropriate to appoint a guardian of the person and property.

Despite assertions to the contrary, the procedure for determining someone incapacitated and in need of a court-appointed guardian is not that simple.

How incapacitation is determined

When a petition is filed for a determination of incapacity, the Court will appoint an examining committee. The committee consists of at least one licensed physician and two other individuals in the healthcare field (such as a psychologist, nurse, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, etc.).

The members of the examining committee will meet with the allegedly incapacitated person and conduct an exam. Typically, the exam committee members will also consult with the person’s attending physician or long-term health care provider as well. This provides comprehensive insight into the individual’s potential cognitive decline.

Once the committee completes its report, it is filed with the Court. The committee makes a recommendation as to whether the person should be found to have complete capacity, limited incapacity, or totally incapacitated. 

In addition to the examining committee, the Court appoints an attorney for the alleged incapacitated person. The attorney’s job is to review the examining committee reports with the person, obtain the person’s position on whether they want a guardianship (assuming they know what it means), and then advocate their client’s position to the Court. 

‘If U Seek’ Answers

Given these procedural safeguards, could what happened to Britney in California happen here in Florida? 

The answer is a typical lawyer’s answer: It’s difficult to say. 

I did not review the petition that was originally filed in Britney’s conservatorship. However, I gather the assertion was her mental health had declined to where she was unable to make decisions on her own behalf. 

I can tell you that Florida’s guardianship system is not exactly the best place to adjudicate the capacity of someone suffering from cognitive deficiencies due to mental health issues. That is because it is very difficult to improve cognition when an individual is suffering from an ailment that causes chronic cognitive decline. 

There are, however, more tools at our disposal to improve cognition when the decline is caused by mental illness. 

To make a long story short, the question here isn’t necessarily whether she should’ve been placed into conservatorship. The true issue is whether conservatorships and guardianships are appropriate tools to address cognitive declines caused by mental illness.     

Attorney Neil T. Lyons pursued a career in law for the sole purpose of helping people. His practice is focused on the area of elder law, including estate planning, trust and probate administration and guardianship. His early legal experience solidified his commitment to assisting, whenever possible, two very vulnerable groups: children and the elderly. He has been recognized repeatedly by various organizations for his pro bono efforts in Manatee and Sarasota counties. Neil also consistently engages in service to the legal community and joined the Luhrsen Goldberg staff in 2019. 

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Posted in: Elder Law, Guardianship