Last week on her Instagram account, Britney Spears appeared to call for the redistribution of wealth and a general strike. Accompanying an image of text by the Brooklyn-based artist and socialist Mimi Zhu, Spears wrote, “Communion goes beyond walls,” and punctuated the message with three rose emojis—a symbol often used to represent socialist movements.
The post spawned a flurry of “Comrade Britney” memes, as well as earnest praise for Spears’s seeming hard left turn. In Jacobin, Dawn Foster declared, “Spears has shown she’s a comrade, and will influence her fans to look into the ideas espoused.” Others on social media were more critical, pointing out that Britney Spears has a net worth of $59 million and continues to make millions through her music, performances, and celebrity endorsement deals. If Spears wants to redistribute the wealth, why doesn’t she start with herself?
But Spears couldn’t give away her money even if she wanted to. The 38-year-old singer has very little control over her own life in almost every respect. She cannot legally make her own financial decisions. She cannot choose where to live, whom to marry, or whom she can spend time with. Depending on a judge’s decision, she may not be able to vote. Spears can still refuse medications or hospitalizations—but the control over every other aspect of her life makes that small freedom a technicality. Every purchase she makes must be tracked and logged in annual court reports. She hasn’t been allowed to make the most basic decisions about her own life since 2008, when a court put her under conservatorship after her very public struggle with mental illness.
Conservatorship, which is also called guardianship in most states, is a legal proceeding in which someone—usually a family member—is chosen by the court to make legal decisions for that person. The criteria varies by state, but guardianship is generally imposed on people with a documented disability who are determined, by a judge, to be unable to care for themselves. In the United States, guardianship is largely about the capacity to make responsible choices. So, a person who is paralyzed and may need help bathing or eating is not at risk of guardianship, but a person who simply does not bathe or eat may be. Spears’s conservator is her father, Jaime.
The purpose of conservatorship is to make decisions for people considered too vulnerable to care for or make decisions for themselves. Guardianship is most commonly used on young adults with intellectual disabilities and older adults with dementia. It isn’t clear how many people are under guardianship in the United States, but in a 2013 report, the AARP’s “best guess” was 1.5 million Americans.
While most guardians are genuinely concerned for the welfare of their wards, others can be incredibly abusive, and there are few, if any, checks on their power. Sam Crane, the legal and public policy director at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and a nationally recognized expert on alternatives to guardianship, explained, “In theory, family courts are supposed to oversee guardians’ performance and make sure they don’t take advantage of people or abuse their power. But in practice, for most people under guardianship, there is little oversight.” She noted, however, that Spears’s guardianship may involve more oversight than usual, because of the large amount of money involved.
In one particularly egregious example, the state of Maine was acting as guardian and sold a man’s home for less than half of its assessed value, auctioned off his beloved musical instruments, and euthanized his cat, Caterpillar. (A court ruled that the state could not be sued for its actions.) In Florida, a professional guardian named Rebecca Fierle placed “do not resuscitate orders” on clients who did not want them, resulting in at least one man’s premature death. Family members can be equally sinister, but those cases are often difficult to prove. Since there is no national tracking, it’s impossible to know how much abuse occurs under guardianship across the country.
Crane explained to me that once someone is under guardianship, they only rarely get back out: “You need to go to court and establish that the conservatorship isn’t necessary anymore. But because you haven’t recently had the opportunity to make decisions for yourself, it’s extremely difficult to persuade a judge that you can make those decisions.”
In addition to the lack of opportunity to demonstrate competent decision-making, there are other barriers to access to challenge conservatorship. “Because people under conservatorship don’t have access to their own money, it can be difficult or impossible to pay a lawyer to help with this,” Crane said.
Judges may also have unrealistic expectations of what “capacity to make decisions” is. “Often, judges will insist on proof that someone is no longer disabled, which is often impossible,” Sam Crane told me. Some do people have more difficulty making safe decisions on their own because of disability, but a disability in and of itself isn’t necessarily proof of that.
Some people do manage to leave guardianship, but even with the full backing of the conservator or guardian, it can be difficult. Ryan King, a man with developmental disabilities from Washington, DC, had his parents’ support, but it still took nine years for the court to allow him to run his own affairs.
There are less-restrictive ways to help people with cognitive disabilities make good decisions about their own lives. One common less-restrictive option is power of attorney. When you give someone else power of attorney, that person can manage your medical decisions and finances. You can also change who has that power of attorney whenever you like.
Another newer option is something called “supported decision-making.” Supported decision-making is a more informal arrangement than guardianship, in which a disabled person who may have difficulty making decisions can consult family and friends, while the person retains their legal rights. As of 2019, eight states and the District of Columbia have laws that define supported decision-making. It is also in use on a less formal basis in states that do not yet have such laws. In California, where Spears lives, supported decision-making is an option for disabled people and their families, even though there is no specific legal recognition of it yet.
The details of Spears’s guardianship and circumstances are private, as is the exact nature of her disability. It’s unclear what level of support she needs, or if she needs any support at all. But Crane says everyone deserves to have input regarding their own life choices. “Most people can make their own decisions, given the right tools and supports,” she told me. For example, a disabled person in a supported decision-making arrangement may ask for help understanding decisions. A chosen supporter may accompany a disabled person to the doctor or the bank to help explain the options, but the ultimate decision is up to the disabled person. In cases where someone tends to make large, impulsive purchases, money may be placed in an advisory account, to be managed by a professional financial adviser, who can give feedback on whether making a purchase or investment is a good idea.
While we all joke about how Comrade Britney will be the first celebrity over the barricades when we storm Mar-a-Lago and make edits of Chinese Communist propaganda, please keep in mind that she is experiencing an extreme abrogation of her civil rights that remains unquestioned, difficult to break, and hidden from public view for many Americans.