britney spears conservatorshipWith Britney Spears’ terrible, unseemly conservatorship matters splashed all over the press, it’s hard not to know about her plight.  Many people sympathize with the #FREEBRITNEY movement.  Others find her sad story to be merely entertaining.  Regardless of how you may feel about Britney and her very public dilemma, there’s a lesson here for all of us.

I’m not going to dig into all the dirty details of Britney’s Court conservatorship proceeding (known in some states as a “guardianship”) and her desperate efforts to extricate herself from it.  I’m not even going to go into a lengthy discussion of the many horrors of this Court procedure, where a judge can literally take charge of all your personal and financial decisions and appoint some third-party you have little or no say in to make all those decisions for you, potentially for as long as you live.  Nor will I expand upon the emotional toll and all the incredible expenses and delays of being tied up in Court, and, even worse yet, the publicity of the whole mess.

I’m just going to address the lessons of this Britney “song”.  First of all…

Yes, This Can Happen to You!

Conservatorship doesn’t just happen to wealthy child entertainers (or to adult ones who make bad decisions with relationships, children, money and/or drugs and alcohol). 

Conservatorship can happen to anyone if and when you’re too disabled (due to an accident or illness) or too incompetent (due to infirmity of mind or just old age and dementia) to handle your own affairs.  Don’t believe me?  Here are the statistics.  If you’re under age 60, there is a 4 to 5 times greater likelihood that you will become disabled, due to an accident or illness, for a period of over one year, than the chances of you dying.  And, if you’re over age 60, there’s a 70% chance that, during your remaining lifetime, you will be too disabled or incompetent to act for yourself, for a period of at least 2 to 2½ years.

Britney Spears’ Conservatorship is not just an outlier event.

You Need the Right Legal Documents NOW,
Before Something Happens to You!

First, you should have a properly prepared Durable Power of Attorney, to allow the person (or persons) of your choosing to take over your financial affairs when you can’t act.  If you don’t, the alternative is some unwanted or unknown third-party being appointed as your “agent” by a judge (like with Britney).  This Power of Attorney should provide a quick, inexpensive, non-Court proceeding way for your designated agent to step in, such as by getting letters from 2 examining doctors stating that you are no longer able to act.  And the Power of Attorney should have a “come back in” provision, so that when you may be able to act again, you can get reinstated immediately without having to go to Court, like Britney.

Second, you should have two properly prepared documents that will allow someone you choose to handle your health related decisions if you can’t - - an Advance Health Care Directive (also known in some states as a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care or Health Care Proxy) and a HIPAA Authorization.  The Authorization allows access to your otherwise private medical information so informed healthcare decisions can be made for you under the Directive. 

Third, if you own a home (regardless of equity) or have non-real estate assets totaling over about $200,000, you may also want to have a Living Trust to hold your asserts (or be beneficiary of certain of your assets).  You can control and access the Living Trust, as the “Trustee”, for as long as you wish and are capable.  When you no longer can act for yourself (again as determined by two doctor letters), the next person(s) you’ve named will act.  And, like the Power of Attorney, you can “come back in” when you’re able to act again.  The beauty of a Living Trust (if it has all your assets properly in it) is it can completely avoid not only a Court Conservatorship while you’re alive, but another difficult Court process known as a Probate when you pass away.

Keep in mind that no legal document is bulletproof.  Third party “bad actors” may still force you into a Court Conservatorship, particularly if there are questions raised as to whether you were legally competent to sign the described documents or were unduly influenced by someone to do so.  However, the mentioned documents, even if attacked, may still be instructive to a judge as to your wishes and may be persuasive.

Choose the Right Person(s)
to Act for You

As happened with Britney, a Court may merely default to the choice of your closest relative.  That person may have their own conflicting agenda (particularly since they will have access to your money and can pay themselves for acting).  Or that person just may not get along with you, your family and your other advisors.

Like with all legal documents, you should seek proper, professional, experienced legal counsel to assist you with your decision as to who should act on your behalf if you can’t.  It may be best to appoint an independent, non-family person or even a bank or trust company. 

Too Bad Britney Didn’t Know That
Proper Estate Planning is Self-Empowerment

Unfortunately, it appears Britney didn’t get the best legal advice, in advance of her problems and along the way, as they took place.  This is why choosing the right estate planning attorney is so important.  And doing the right planning now, rather than waiting until it’s too late.

While you may not relate to Britney and what she is going through, the little-known fact is that proper estate planning is not only about what happens when you’re gone, it’s about staying out of Court and self-empowerment while you’re living (with a lot less public drama!).

 

Image Source: Instagram (@britneyspears)

Philip J. Kavesh
Nationally recognized attorney helping clients with customized estate planning guidance for over 40 years.
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