If you follow pop-star Britney Spears on social media, you’re well aware that her posts as of late seem like less album promoting and more like a cry for help. These posts have gotten the attention of her fans near and far, who are responsible for starting the #FreeBritney movement in an effort to help end an almost two-decade long conservatorship her father has over her, which puts him in full control over everything from her money to her health and almost every aspect of her daily routine. In this post, I’m going to break down what a conservatorship is in New Jersey, what it means, how someone qualifies for one and what you need to do to get one granted.
Little background on Brit:
Britney’s original conservatorship order was entered by a California court to establish a protective arrangement for Britney, as an adult who cannot make her own decisions, similar to a guardianship under New Jersey law. Since every state is so different when it comes to this topic, among other things, I’m going to focus on New Jersey conservatorships since this is the state in which I’ve helped countless families obtain protective arrangements, like guardianship and conservatorship orders, for friends and family.
What is a conservatorship under New Jersey law and how can a conservatorship order benefit the conservatee (the person who is subject to a conservatorship order) and the caregiver of the conservaee?
In New Jersey, there are different types of protective arrangements for adults, depending on whether they are able to make their own decisions (incapacitated) or for whatever reason, even if they are able to make decisions, they are not able to manage their affairs independently. A judgment of incapacitation awarding guardianship is a judicial order finding an adult person incapacitated (legally unable to make decisions) and can be entered against the wishes of the incapacitated person. In contrast, a judgment of conservatorship is a voluntary arrangement under court order whereby another adult is appointed by the court to assist an adult who is competent but cannot function independently. As a court ordered arrangement, a conservatorship is more rigid and entails more supervision than a general durable power of attorney. Because a conservatorship involves an individual with capacity (the ability to make decisions), in ordered to be entered, a conservatorship must be consented to by the proposed conservatee and close family members of the proposed conservatee must be notified.
How does a conversatorship differ from a power of attorney? A conservatorship differs from a power of attorney in that there is annual court oversight, through the filing of accountings and reports to the court regarding the well-being and the finances of the conservative.
When in New Jersey would a conservatorship be entered?
The case of In re Conservatorship of Halley, 777 Ad 68 (N.J.App.Div. 2001) is a classic example. There, a 92 year old man was hospitalized for injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident and upon his discharge from the hospital, arranged for a local attorney who had managed his legal affairs for approximately seven years to serve as his power of attorney. Although he had a brother and sister-in -aw in another state, he wanted to maintain control of his finances and living arrangements. The attorney managed Mr. Halley’s affairs and his finances and hired home health aides to care for him in his home, as per his wishes, and arranged for him to travel on a Disney cruise and to take a trip to Daytona Beach.
A former aide from the home health care company filed a complaint with Adult Protective Services alleging that the attorney and the home health care company were taking advantage of Mr. Halley. The APS social worker met with Mr. Halley and determined that he was competent after administering a mini mental status examination. APS filed a complaint and the court appointed an attorney to represent Mr. Halley in the proceedings. A guardianship could not be obtained over Mr. Halley, because he was intelligent, conversant, and clearly oriented to person, time and place and was able to make some decisions, but not necessarily to carry them out independently.
Mr. Halley’s nephew, upon being notified through his father of the conservatorship proceedings, attempted to intervene in the proceedings to secure his own appointment and an accounting of his uncle’s finances. Mr. Halley expressed his concerns that his nephew was only after his money. The court-appointed attorney for Mr. Halley interviewed the attorney who was serving under the power of attorney, Mr. Halley’s physician, and others closely connected with Mr. Halley, and after reviewing medical and financial records, found that the attorney who was serving as the power of attorney should be appointed as Mr. Halley’s conservator. As a result, the attorney originally serving under the power of attorney was appointed as the conservator of Mr. Halley.
There is an old saying that sunlight is the best disinfectant. In the Halley case, the court’s scrutiny of the arrangement, which ultimately was determined to be beneficial to Mr. Halley in allowing him to maintain his independence and some control over his affairs, worked to the benefit of both Mr. Halley and the attorney who was helping him. This is a great example of how a conservatorship can protect both the conservator and the conservatee. Mr. Halley was able to maintain his independence in the home, and manage his own affairs through the conservatorship arrangement. The attorney serving as the conservator remained subject to court oversight for the protection of Mr. Halley and no one could reasonably question her professional integrity or judgment in caring for Mr. Halley once the court became involved and essentially ratified her work for Mr. Halley
How long does it take to get a conservatorship in New Jersey?
The New Jersey judiciary is one of the best in the nation; however, due to the courts’ heavy dockets, getting a conservatorship will not be a fast process. You will have to schedule examinations with two doctors and obtain completed paperwork from those doctors and then a court filing (called a verified complaint and order for hearing) must be made. Once the papers are filed with the court, they are reviewed by the Surrogate, sent to the judge for review and assignment of a hearing date, and there is typically a delay of anywhere from 30 days to up to two months between the date of filing and the hearing date.
Key takeaway: If you are caring for a friend or neighbor and you have a professional license, obtaining a judicial blessing of the caregiving relationship through a conservatorship can protect your license and your career from the stress and adverse consequences, which could otherwise result from an investigation and/or complaint by Adult Protective Services. Based on my example above, if Mr. Halley and his attorney had sought a conservatorship from the beginning, they likely would not have had to deal with an APS investigation initiated by a disgruntled former home care company employee.
For more information about conservatorships, guardianships and a power of attorney, please feel free to reach out.
Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability Law, Taxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.