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Britney: Struggles Illustrate Common Themes

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Oops, we’re doing it again. We’ve written about Britney Spears and her conservatorship from time to time, including two weeks ago, after she appeared in court. Here we are again, not to address Britney’s situation specifically but to look at how her conservatorship illustrates some truths about conservatorships. (Stars! They’re just like us!) But a lot has happened since Spears addressed the court on June 23. To catch you up:

Lessons for All of Us

For professionals who serve as fiduciaries (like Fleming & Curti) for incapacitated people, Britney’s case highlights some of the difficult issues that also arise in the lives of ordinary people:

Family Members Are Not Always the Best Choice. Britney is famously angry with her dad, who has served as her fiduciary for 13 years. She accused him of being abusive, controlling, and enjoying his power over her. He said he is sorry to see his daughter suffering and has asked for an investigation. Regardless of who is right, their relationship is probably beyond repair. In many cases, the better choice is a neutral fiduciary. A neutral fiduciary does not come with historical family issues or expectations (either too high or too low) that so often come with family relationships. With an outsider handling the details, family members can stay family members. After the trauma of obtaining court-ordered protection, the additional obligations of being the fiduciary often don’t help a family heal.

Money Sometimes Does Not Help. A big pile of money distorts any process, but particularly a protective proceeding like conservatorship. Facts and motivations are difficult to determine when almost everyone involved in the process is on the payroll. In Britney’s case, her father, attorney, doctors, therapists, professional advisers and so on have a financial interest in seeing that she remain under supervision so she keeps coming to appointments and doesn’t retire (as her manager said was her intent) and stop the money train.

Challenges of Mental Illness

Mental Illness Is Tough, Part 1. Guardianships and conservatorships are designed to maintain the affairs of people who are unable to manage their lives at all – those with severe dementia, serious cognitive challenges, or critical disabilities. People who suffer from mental illness do not fit into the arrangement very well. They often can manage so long as they take their medications. But if they are not “med compliant,” they can quickly “decompensate” and become a danger to themselves or others. Constant supervision can be the key.

Mental Illness is Tough, Part 2. When people are seriously mentally ill, medications sometimes stop working, and other strategies need to be explored. Part of the problem: the person with the illness doesn’t realize their situation is declining and is unable to get help without outside intervention. Medication management is a primary catalyst for many guardianships.

Looking Out for Britney

Everyone Wants the Best. Judges, fiduciaries, attorneys, family members. All want the struggling person to get better, be happy, and, most of all, be safe. The tendency is to sacrifice autonomy in favor of safety. In theory, adults can make bad decisions and their capacity to make those decisions is presumed. In practice, the tendency is to first make sure a person is safe, then consider whether freedom to make decisions is a good idea.

Representing a Person with Serious Issues Is Difficult. Britney suggested her attorney never told her she could ask to terminate the conservatorship and dissuaded her from speaking publicly. As her attorney, he was supposed to advocate for her point of view, even if not in her best interest. It’s not unusual for court-appointed attorneys to object to protection without a lot of force. Particularly if the evidence is clear, fierce advocacy uses up resources better used for the incapacitated person. For Britney, though, resources weren’t an issue. For her attorney, it probably would have been in his financial interest to follow his duty and help her fight the conservatorship. What he did and why likely will never be known because he is bound by client confidentiality rules. Our best guess is, he believes she needs protection.

Having a Say

Protected People Should Still Have a Voice. A person under court-ordered protection loses the right to make most adult decisions. But fiduciaries still have a duty to cater to the person’s desires, unless harm could result. People under protection also don’t lose the right to make all decisions. If they retain the sufficient capacity, they can still change their estate plan. That means they can disinherit the person seeking to control them. Yes, Britney could make a will or trust and guarantee that her father would not see a dime of her $60 million estate. (Her kids would be first in line anyway.) She also should have a say in who serves as her fiduciary and as her attorney. According to Britney, up until two weeks ago, her handlers ignored her requests for change. If true, that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

The Grass May Not Be Greener. Britney’s current conservator of the person has said she is not going to resign and is crafting a plan for termination of the conservatorship. In all likelihood, that plan will include mandatory medication management, regular check-ins with medical and mental health professionals, and some kind of financial oversight to ensure no one takes advantage of Britney’s vulnerabilities. Some people do have conditions that require lifelong management to keep them safe. The judge may decide that complete independence poses risks that are just too high. Britney may escape a formal conservatorship, but she’s unlikely to be totally free.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.