Very few people are familiar with guardianship and when and where it may be appropriate. If you have no experience with a court ordered guardianship you can consider yourself lucky. There are a few circumstances where guardianship is a less frightening experience. Many young adults with special needs are under some type of guardianship and a guardian can be appointed to handle assets inherited by minors. However, guardianships often arise when an individual who previously had capacity loses the ability to care for both his or her financial and medical affairs. If the individual no longer has the capacity to make reasonable decisions that are not detrimental to his or her financial or physical well-being, they may need some sort of court ordered guardianship until he or she regains capacity.
One of the best examples of an individual under a guardianship is Britney Spears. Around the time I was studying for the bar, Britney Spears had just divorced from her husband and was constant tabloid fodder. Cameras followed her everywhere and her various public breakdowns were hard to miss. She shaved her head, had violent run-ins with the paparazzi and at one point lost custody of her children. During this time she was in and out of treatment facilities, often accompanied by various hangers-on, all the while still recording music and performing for her adoring audience. In 2008, citing a mental illness and substance abuse issues, Ms. Spears was placed under a court ordered guardianship (otherwise known as conservatorship).
Because of the constant media coverage, anyone who was watching could see that poor Ms. Spears needed some help. Why was a guardianship appropriate at that time? Because Ms. Spears appeared to be so susceptible to influence, and because of her substantial wealth, she became a prime target. This is the same reason many people are placed under guardianship. What if someone you loved was not managing her money appropriately and was in fact giving large gifts to a gentleman she befriended at the grocery store? What if that same person was clearly physically unwell and yet refusing any form of medical treatment? What if this friend did not want to listen to the advice of her friends and continued to neglect both her physical, mental and financial well-being? How could you help that person if they refused your assistance?
A guardianship can be considered a harsh response, and is only appropriate in situations where an individual no longer has the capacity to make financial and medical decisions. In the case of someone like Britney Spears, the guardianship was a response to a situation that appeared to be spiraling out of control. Britney’s father and lawyer serve as her guardians and make all of her financial and medical decisions. Now that she is under guardianship, Ms. Spears cannot make those decisions on her own.
Unlike many guardianships put in place for the elderly suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, it is likely that in the near future, Ms. Spears will no longer need her guardians. Recently, Ms. Spears’ guardianship has entered the news again, but this time questioning the ongoing necessity of it. Now that Ms. Spears has had years of stability, is it appropriate for her to continue to have no control over her person and finances? At what point will the court give her the ability to function independently, without the constant supervision of her father and her attorney?
For now, the guardianship will stay in place and you will probably not see Ms. Spears cavorting about with Paris Hilton with an umbrella in hand.