Now that Britney Spears has taken the first critical steps toward getting her life back, as she so aptly described her goal last month, Americans should let out a collective sigh of relief. Not only did Ms. Spears succeed in capturing the attention of her compassionate and passionate fans, her allegations of abuse by her conservator-father have brought much needed attention to the issue of abusive guardianship and conservatorships.
Elected representatives from both sides of the aisle have finally expressed a genuine interest in addressing the nation’s dysfunctional “probate” and “equity” courts. Their concern is long overdue.
British actress Rosamund Pike, accepting her Golden Globes award for her brilliant performance as a ruthless guardian in Netflix’s “I Care A Lot,” actually went so far as to thank “America’s broken legal system” for making the chilling drama possible. Did you know that the idea for the film came from observing real life stories about probate court abuses?
Economic exploitation is common
Emotionally gut-wrenching family separation is real, isolation of incompetent adults is real, and economic exploitation by court-appointed fiduciaries is also prevalent. For a further exploration of the issues of conservatorship abuse, “The Guardians” is a compelling documentary from Billie Mintz about an abusive situation that arose in Las Vegas when a professional guardian “legally” kidnapped elderly people out of their homes, liquidated their estates and overcharged for her services.
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As Americans, we should all be wondering how this could be happening, and we should be equally concerned about whether it could happen to any of one of us. Again and again, I have documented the heartbreak in videos of clients who are cut off from seeing their own parents and children. Abusive conservatorships can affect anyone, including members of happy families; there are no boundaries and no one is immune.
As someone who has closely observed the Los Angeles Superior Court probate department for nearly 30 years, I can assure the public that the bench officers and their support staff, the clerks and attorneys who work behind the scenes, are trying their level best to effectuate fair and appropriate outcomes. I have not seen any evidence of graft or corruption in terms of the exchange of money for favorable rulings.
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Sadly, I have seen bias, misogyny and cronyism in my own court experiences – judges playing favorites with some lawyers and condescending to others. Judges and other bench officers who are making decisions regarding money should be, must be, more closely supervised. The power dynamics of probate court are, of course, often money-driven.
Britney saga previews boomer fates
The overall lack of training, supervision and oversight of the “court-appointed” fiduciaries is another issue that must be addressed. The legal issues surrounding aging, disability and incapacity are complex and challenging for all of us. Add to the mix the societal challenges of serial monogamy, children from different partners and financial stressors, and it becomes possible to grasp all the myriad problems that are placed before a judicial officer in a typical week. Any system, no matter how well intended, will break down if the people involved are overextended and undertrained.
Before the baby boomers hit age 80 in 2026, before the greatest transfer of wealth in modern history begins in earnest, it is imperative that all three branches of the government come together to figure out what is going wrong in our nation’s probate and equity courts. We need to listen to each other and arrive at palatable solutions.
How can we construct a better system, within or outside of the law, for dealing with our aging relatives? Training, supervision and accountability at levels that have never been seen before are desperately needed if Americans are going to avoid the trauma, exploitation and abuse described last month by the most famous conservatee of all time, Britney Spears. You never think it will happen to you, until it does.
Lisa MacCarley is a Los Angeles attorney specializing in estate, probate and conservatorship law. Follow her on Twitter: @LisaMaccarley
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Britney Spears case previews baby boom doom under broken legal system