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Oops! That’s not so Toxic!A primer on Conservatorship

Child Tax Credit payments, infrastructure legislature, assassination in Haiti, unrest in Cuba, and Britney Spears. The common link between these topics is that at one time or another in the last few weeks they have been in the headlines of most major news outlets. Most of these topics have to do with politics or international events, but one stands out as different – Britney Spears. Yes, the pop icon is back in the headlines, but not because of a new hit song or wild antics in a nightclub. No, the singer has petitioned to the court to remove control of her finances and business dealings from her father. This arrangement is referred to as a conservatorship.

In 2008, amidst a public mental health crisis, Spears’ finances and assets were ordered into the control of Spears’ father as conservator of her estate. Under the conservatorship, Spears could not access her bank accounts or make decisions regarding her business interests. She even lost artistic control of the release of a couple of albums during the time. Now, 13 years later, she is contesting the conservatorship to have her father removed as conservator.

So what exactly is a conservatorship, and when should it be used?

A conservator is similar to a guardian in that both are responsible for the well-being of a beneficiary, or in this case, the conservatee. Conservator’s can be court-appointed, as well as chosen and specified in certain estate planning documents. There are generally two types of conservators – the conservator of the person, and the conservator of the property. The conservator of the person is most akin to a legal guardian of that person. In this case, the conservator is authorized to manage the conservatee’s personal affairs, which includes providing meals, clothing, housekeeping, transportation and recreation and other everyday needs.

A conservator of the property, on the other hand, is a conservator who manages the finances, pays the bills and protects assets. Conservatees do retain rights to make certain decisions, such as controlling salaries they earn, spend an allowance, retain legal representation, vote in elections, get married, draft their own wills, and make medical decisions for themselves. The basis of Ms. Spears’ lawsuit is that these basic rights have been stripped from her, and she is requesting her father no longer serve as conservator. Despite Ms. Spears’ experience, proper use of a conservatorship is not “toxic.”

There are many occasions when establishing a conservatorship may be appropriate. A couple with minor children may choose to name their minor children as beneficiaries to their estate in their Will. In such a case, the parents may realize that children are of an age where they do not understand how money works, or are incapable of caring for themselves. Depending on the size of the estate, it may be appropriate to split the control of the person versus control of the estate, to make sure that the children’s best interests are kept in mind. A conservatorship may also be appropriate for a disabled person or invalid who cannot care for themselves. And of course, a conservatorship can be established for an elderly person who can no longer care for herself, as well.

A conservatorship may sound a lot like a Power of Attorney (POA), but there are differences. Both Conservators and POA’s can be court appointed after the fact, after the beneficiary becomes incapacitated. Or both can be chosen before incapacitation through various estate planning documents. Such documents generally carry a “springing” power that does not confer the powers or authority of the conservatorship or POA until a specified event occurs – like formally being declared incapacitated.

Conservatorships are not just for the uber-wealthy, despite the fact that the Spears case has brought the concept into the public spotlight. A conservatorship can be an important part of your estate plan, or can even fit a current need if a loved on has already become incapacitated. Contact the Law Office of Doug Peterson to understand what options are available to you, and put the proper planning for the future in place today.

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