Could It Happen In New Hampshire?
Rarely do guardianship arrangements make the national news. The story of Britney Spears is a notable exception, not only gaining the attention of national news outlets, but international ones as well. Her story even spawned a robust fan-driven “Free Britney” movement that, in addition to advocating for Spears, sought to raise awareness about guardianship abuses. In most states, when an individual turns eighteen, they are deemed an adult and have full rights to make their own decisions about all aspects of their life, including financial and personal matters. Britney was twenty-seven in 2008 when the courts initially granted Britney’s father expansive legal responsibility over her, including the management of her personal and financial decisions. This was done under a conservatorship arrangement in California, which is the equivalent of a guardianship in New Hampshire. After years of controversy and friction between the pop star and her father, the conservatorship was finally ended by a judge in September of 2021. Could a similar situation happen in New Hampshire? It’s important to note that Britney’s arrangement was highly unusual in several aspects, and the guardianship laws in New Hampshire have a high bar and robust legal protections for the individual for whom guardianship is being sought. However, we can all learn something from her experience. Consider the following takeaways:
- A guardianship or conservatorship that grants one person decision-making authority over another requires a determination by a court of a certain level of incompetence or inability to care for oneself or manage finances. In Britney’s case, one question many people asked was how a person deemed incompetent could continue to work so successfully, by performing and releasing albums? In New Hampshire, the person petitioning for guardianship must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the proposed ward is incapable of self-care and/or making financial decisions.
- Continuation of a temporary guardianship arrangement should be carefully scrutinized by the courts. When Britney’s father initially petitioned for conservatorship after some well-publicized erratic behavior by the star, he asked for an emergency “temporary” conservatorship. That temporary arrangement was continued indefinitely within months, only ending after immense public pressure and Britney’s ultimate willingness to speak out publicly on a difficult and highly personal situation.
- Individuals have a right to legal counsel. In Britney’s situation, she was not able to hire her own attorney but was represented by one who was appointed by the court. She hired her own lawyer in July of 2021 after telling a Los Angeles court she had been unable to do so previously. At the time, she stated she didn’t know she could petition to end the conservatorship.
- A guardianship arrangement should be considered only if there are no other less-restrictive alternatives such as the signing of power of attorney documents and Supported Decision Making. Britney’s advocates contended that her situation was partially a result of the court not examining those options.
While it may be unlikely a similar situation to Britney Spears’ cautionary tale would happen under New Hampshire law, guardianship is not to be entered into lightly. Consulting with a knowledgeable attorney should always be your first step.