It’s not often that matters typically confined to probate court calendars have a pop culture moment. But, in a weird twist of the news cycle, Britney Spears has given conservatorship, and its counterpart, guardianship, a moment in the spotlight. It’s an opportune moment for conservatorship to be in the spotlight in Washington. Until this year, Washington had guardianships (more on those below) but not conservatorships. Beginning January 1, 2022, conservatorships will also be available in Washington under the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Other Protective Arrangements Act, which can be found at RCW 11.130.

If, by some algorithmic magic, you have no idea what Britney Spears has to do with conservatorship, here’s a brief recap of a New York Times summary of the story: In 2008, Britney Spears had some very public struggles with mental health and substance abuse, and her father was appointed by a California court to serve as conservator for her. After being subject to the conservatorship for more than a decade, Spears is now in the headlines for her vigorous objections to this ongoing arrangement that keeps her from having control over her career, her finances, and her personal life.

What is the difference between a guardian and a conservator? Both guardianships and conservatorships are a type of legal arrangement, supervised by a court, that grant a third-party fiduciary legal authority over the financial and personal affairs of a person whom the court has deemed to be incapable of making those decisions on their own. The new RCW 11.130.010(5)  defines a conservator as “a person appointed by a court to make decisions with respect to the property or financial affairs of an individual subject to conservatorship.” By contrast, the new RCW 11.130.010(11)  defines a guardian as “a person appointed by the court to make decisions with respect to the personal affairs of an individual.” Under the new statute, both guardians and conservators have authority of the personal affairs of an individual, but a conservatorship also provides for the conservator to have legal authority over only the financial affairs of the individual.

Both guardianships and conservatorships are restrictive arrangements that include court involvement and may strip the individual of legal rights over all or a portion of their personal and financial affairs. People may be able to avoid ever being subject to a guardianship or conservatorship simply by including a General Durable Power of Attorney and a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Decisions in their estate plan, nominating agents who will handle their financial and personal affairs should they become incapacitated.  A guardianship or conservatorship may be an unfortunate necessity in some circumstances but, as the conversation regarding Britney Spears’s case illustrates, there are instances when a guardian or conservator has been appointed and such appointment either has continued for too long or should never have been made.

Have a question about guardianships, conservatorships, steps to take in your estate planning to avoid these results, or whether Britney be free? We’re happy to chat!

This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.

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