As we detailed last week in part one, Britney recently testified in a court hearing during which she described a shocking pattern of abuse and exploitation at the hands of her father and others involved with the conservatorship. We also discussed how confidential court records obtained by the New York Times provided support for Britney’s claims and showed that the pop icon had expressed serious opposition to her conservatorship as early as 2014 and tried unsuccessfully on multiple occasions to have her father removed from his position.
In response, Britney’s father flatly denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyers filed a petition requesting the court investigate Britney’s allegations of abuse. Shortly after the hearing, both Britney’s court-appointed lawyer, Samuel Ingham, and Bessemer Trust, the wealth management company which had previously signed on to be the co-conservator of Spears’ finances, asked the court to be removed from the pop star’s conservatorship.
In a follow-up court hearing held on July 14th, Judge Brenda Penny approved the resignation of Ingham and Bessemer Trust and granted a request by Britney to hire her own lawyer. To represent her moving forward, Britney chose Mathew Rosengart, a prominent Hollywood litigator and former federal prosecutor, as her new attorney.
During the July 14th hearing Britney joined by phone and once again asked the court to remove her father as co-conservator. She also stated that her father should be prosecuted for his alleged abuse. Britney reiterated that she is unwilling to undergo any more mental-health evaluations, which she called “stupid psych tests,” according to a report by NPR.
“I’m not willing to sit with anybody at this point to be evaluated,” Britney said. “I want to press charges for abuse. Instead of investigating my capacity, I want an investigation on my dad.”
Although Britney has yet to file the formal legal document seeking an end to her conservatorship, her new lawyer told the judge that he plans to file the petition to remove Jamie Spears from the conservatorship. If he does file the petition, the judge could rule on it during the upcoming September 29th court hearing on the conservatorship.
Use Estate Planning to Avoid Britney’s Fate
Although we will have to wait to find out whether the court will allow Britney to terminate the conservatorship without undergoing another psychiatric evaluation, had Britney created a proper estate plan early on in her adult life, she could have been saved from the years of control by her father under what she has referenced as an abusive conservatorship.
Using a variety of different estate planning vehicles, Britney could have chosen the person or persons who would make decisions on her behalf during her incapacity. She could have also created legally binding instructions stipulating how her assets and personal care should be managed during her incapacity. With the right planning, Britney could have even spelled out the specific conditions that must be met for her to be deemed incapacitated in the first place.
Here in part two, we will discuss how you and your loved ones can use proactive estate planning to create a comprehensive plan for incapacity- so you can avoid suffering the same fate as Britney. A debilitating illness or injury could strike at any time and at any age. If you have yet to create your own incapacity plan, contact me right away to get this urgent matter taken care of.
Planning For Incapacity: Where to Start
When planning for your potential incapacity, the first thing to ask yourself is, “If I am ever incapacitated and unable to care for myself, who would I want to make decisions on my behalf?” Specifically, you will be selecting the person, or persons, you want to make your healthcare, financial, and legal decisions for you until you either recover or pass away.
The most important thing to remember is that you must choose someone. Like we have seen with Britney, if you do not legally name someone to make these decisions during your incapacity, the court will choose someone for you. This is where things can get extremely difficult for you and your loved ones.
Although laws differ by state, in the absence of any estate planning, if you become incapacitated, the court will typically appoint a conservator or guardian to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf. As with Britney, this person could be a family member you would never want managing your affairs, a professional guardian who charges exorbitant fees, or even a crooked professional guardian who abuses and exploits you for their own financial gain.
Like most court proceedings, the process of naming a guardian can be quite lengthy, costly, and emotionally draining for your family. This is assuming that your family members agree about what is in your best interest. If your family members disagree about the course of your medical treatment or managing your finances, this could lead to ugly court battles between your loved ones that invites unwanted publicity and embarrassment.
Such conflicts can tear your family apart and drain your estate’s finances. For an example of just how bad things can get, look at the case of Florida’s Terry Schiavo, who spent 15 years in a vegetative state after suffering a heart attack at age 26. Because Terry did not have a living will or health care directive indicating in writing how she would want medical decisions made for her in such an event, Schiavo’s young husband fought Terry’s parents in court for more than a decade for permission to remove her from life support before she was ultimately allowed to pass away.
A Comprehensive Incapacity Plan
Fortunately, such turmoil can be avoided through proper estate planning. Determining which estate planning strategies you should use to grant and guide this decision-making authority depends entirely on your personal circumstances. There are several options available. Choosing what is best for you is something you should ultimately decide after consulting with an experienced lawyer like us because there are many considerations beyond simply whether to “pull the plug”. Things like how to handle matters in the event of a pregnancy, whether to keep providing hydration and nutrition (and, if so, what kind), and how to determine incapacity are just some of the factors to consider. These and other factors are not typically addressed in a standard advance health care directive.
When it comes to creating your incapacity plan, your best bet is to put in place an array of different planning tools, rather than a single document. To this end, your plan should include some, or all, of the following:
Durable financial power of attorney: This document grants an individual of your choice the immediate (or springing) authority to make decisions related to the management of your financial, business, and legal affairs, and can state how your affairs should be handled.
Revocable living trust: A living trust can immediately transfer control of your assets held by the trust to a person of your choice to be used for your benefit in the event of your incapacity. The trust can include legally binding instructions for how your assets should be managed, and the document can even spell out specific conditions that must be met for you to be deemed incapacitated.
Medical power of attorney: An advance directive that grants an individual of your choice the immediate (or springing) legal authority to make decisions about your medical treatment in the event of your incapacity.
Living will: An advance directive that provides specific guidance about how your medical decisions should be made during your incapacity, including who should be able to see you and specifics regarding how you want your care to be handled. In some instances, a medical power of attorney and a living will are combined in a single document.
Documents Are Not Enough
In the end, there is one thing to remember about all of these documents—they are just documents, and they do not provide your loved ones with a trusted advisor who is often needed to deal with all potential outcomes, and to navigate the legal system on your behalf. If you really want to keep your family out of court and out of conflict, you cannot just rely on documents to do it. Instead, these documents should be created by a lawyer like us who will get to know you, your wishes, and be there for you throughout the many stages of life—and ultimately be there for your family when you are no longer able to be there for them.
Furthermore, in addition to the above estate planning documents, it is equally—if not more—important for your loved ones to be aware of your plan and understand their role in it. As part of the planning process, as your Life & Legacy Attorney, we will hold a family meeting with all of the individuals impacted by your plan. During this meeting, we walk those impacted individuals through your plan, explaining the reasoning behind your decisions and what they need to do if something happens to you.
In the end, you will find that the best protection comes from combining your comprehensive incapacity plan with a team of people who will care for you, can watch out for you, and know exactly what to do in the event tragedy strikes. As your Life & Legacy Attorney, we can guide and support you to put in place both of these elements. In doing so, it would make it virtually impossible for a conservator or legal guardian to ever be appointed—or even need to be appointed—against your wishes. Instead we will create a robust plan that would allow you to stipulate how your life, healthcare, and assets should be managed if you ever become unable to manage them yourself.
Timing Is Everything
Keep in mind that your incapacity plan must be created well before you become incapacitated. You must be able to clearly express your wishes and consent in order for these planning documents to be valid. Even slight levels of mental illness or dementia could get the documents challenged and possibly thrown out in court.
An unforeseen accident or illness could strike at any time no matter your age, so do not wait—contact us right away to get your incapacity plan started.
Finally, it is vital that you regularly review and update your estate plan to keep pace with changes to your life, family dynamics, and the law. If any of the individuals you have named becomes unable or unwilling to serve for whatever reason, you will need to revise your plan accordingly. We can help with that as well.
Let Britney’s Story Be a Lesson
Although Britney’s story is certainly tragic and we cannot be sure how it will ultimately play out, her case has at least shined a spotlight on the potential for abuse that exists within the conservatorship and guardianship system. In fact, Britney’s case has already inspired lawmakers at both the state and federal level to take a closer look at adult guardianships and push for increased oversight and transparency for these legal arrangements.
As one Congresswoman from Massachusetts told Politico, “If this could happen to someone who is as famous as Britney Spears, I mean, think about what’s happening to regular Americans. We need to pull back the curtain on this.” said Rep. Lori Trahan.
By the same token, Britney’s story should inspire you to make certain that you and your loved ones have the proper estate planning strategies in place to prevent the loss of autonomy, family conflict, and potential for abuse that comes with court-ordered conservatorships and guardianships.
If you have yet to plan for incapacity, schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session™ right away. We can advise you about the most suitable estate planning vehicles to put in place. If you already have an incapacity plan prepared—even one created by another lawyer—we can review it to make sure it is properly set up, maintained, and updated. Contact us, your Life & Legacy Attorney today to plan for your life.
This article is a service of Reflections Life Investments LLC, Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents; we ensure that you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That is why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you have ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.