In the early days of this blog, I enjoyed using celebrity estate-planning blunders to illustrate what not to do in terms of your own planning. I’ve been thinking a lot about that series lately, particularly as stories about the “Free Britney” movement have inundated my news feeds. Of course, Britney Spears is not the first celebrity to lose control over her personal and financial decisions, and this happens on a lower-profile basis near-daily in Courts across the country.
Remember Amanda Bynes? This former child star had a seemingly bright future ahead of her, until she was derailed by mental health and substance abuse issues. She was in and out of treatment, and in 2013 she went on a series of Twitter rants calling other celebrities “ugly.” At around that time, her mother sought and obtained Conservatorship over her. In California, this takes two forms: Conservatorship of the Person (under Massachusetts law, this is a “Guardianship”) and Conservatorship of the Estate (under Massachusetts law, this is a “Conservatorship”). Stories have popped up over the years with various controversies between Amanda and her mother as to both financial and personal affairs, highlighting in a very public way the issues that many conservatees (also known as protected persons, or wards, depending on the jurisdiction and the context) face. A few observations:
- Amanda has complained about how her mother has handled her finances, in particular the choice to pay $5,200 per month to a treatment center. Of course, her mother owes fiduciary duties to exercise sound discretion with respect to Amanda’s assets and expenses, and what might be unreasonable in the context of a more modest estate may well be considered reasonable in connection with a $5,000,000 estate and a protected person in need of treatment. In Massachusetts, accountings would be required, and both the protected person and (in most cases) a Court-appointed Guardian ad Litem would have the opportunity to review and lodge objections, ultimately for the Court to decide.
- Some reports have indicated that the Conservatorship of the Estate has terminated, leaving only the Conservatorship of the Person in place, perhaps because the assets have been moved into one or more trusts under the control of a Trustee (not Court-supervised) rather than a Conservator. In Massachusetts, this would require a separate Petition by the Conservator seeking specific authority to engage in this form of planning.
- Amanda has also complained about her mother’s control over her personal life, including taking control of her social media channels and refusing to grant permission for Amanda to marry her fiancé, whom she met in rehab. The extent to which a Conservator or Guardian can restrict major personal decisions (e.g., marriage) and everyday interactions (e.g., social media) will depend on the extent of authority granted in the Decree establishing the relationship. In Massachusetts, the Courts are careful to restrict personal autonomy only to the extent necessary to protect the person under Guardianship. Often, even when major decisions are restricted, a protected person will retain the power to make day-to-day decisions for herself. In either case, the Guardian’s decisions need to be made within the sound exercise of discretion, or those decisions can be challenged.
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