By now, you’ve probably heard about the #FreeBritney movement. You vaguely know it has something to do with her father having control over her money, that she’s not allowed to drive, and people are upset about it. But you’re hazy on the details. Well, all that has to do with a legal concept known as a guardianship or conservatorship. So what exactly are they? I’ll break it down for you.
They Vary by State
You’ll need to take a look at the laws in your state to see how these are specifically defined, but when we talk about guardianships and conservatorships, we’re generally talking about a judge’s ruling that gives someone decision-making power over another person’s personal or financial life. This could be because of dementia, drug use, or a host of other reasons, but it’s generally initiated because an individual is no longer able to make important decisions for themselves.
The judge in a conservatorship case will use the doctor’s assessment, as well as listen to what family and friends have to say, before making her decision about whether someone needs a conservatorship. If a conservator is needed, the court appoints someone to make decisions for the individual. Unless it’s limited by the court, the conservator has the same rights, powers and duties over their ward as a parent has over their child. What’s more, when someone becomes a ward, the court takes away the civil liberties that we enjoy every day: the right to vote, the right to marry, the right to drive.
Power of Attorney…
Once appointed, the conservator is required to report to the court every year. And they truly have power over just about every part of the ward’s life. A conservator can release medical records, has some power over mental health decisions (short of committing them to a mental facility), make financial and contract decisions, file lawsuits, sell their house, and must apply for benefits if the ward could be eligible. A power of attorney, or POA, is your best bet to avoid this mess altogether. It’s a legal document where you can pre-authorize another person to act on your behalf, either for healthcare or financial decisions—such as what happens if you can’t breathe by yourself and need a ventilator.
…Or Someone Else
If you don’t have those docs in place and lose capacity, it’s up to the court to get a decisionmaker for you, and the sometimes-messy business begins. Trusted friends and family can petition to be your conservator. And if they disagree? There’s a huge cost in legal fees if people are fighting about who should be your conservator. Not only that, but the person appointed as your guardian/conservator may not be the person who you would have chosen yourself. It may even be someone you’ve never met. With that said, if you don’t have honest and reliable family members, that may be exactly who you want, a neutral third party with your best interest at heart.
Start thinking about who you’d want to be there for you, and who you’d trust to make the tough decisions if they needed to be made. Maybe your sister is great with money, and your brother happens to be a physician’s assistant, so you could make one your POA for property, and one for healthcare. Who are the most trusted people in your life?
A version of this article was originally published on Forbes.