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Take It To The Bank: What Britney Spears Has To Do With Your Estate Planning

In recent weeks, music icon Britney Spears has dominat­ed headlines as more and more details about her legal conser­vatorship come to light. In her emotional court hearing a few months ago, Britney spoke about the abusive nature of the legal arrangement, describing how every detail of her life —from her social me­dia posts to the medications she was on — was managed by a ten-person panel headed by her father.

For more than a decade, Spears has had no control over her financial and personal affairs, in­stead having to rely on her father for permission to act. Among the many restrictions she was under, she was expressly forbidden from publicly discussing or speaking out against the conservatorship.

Conservatorships are nor­mally reserved for individuals with diminished decision-making capacity, such as dementia pa­tients. In 2008, Spears’ family peti­tioned the California legal system for a conservatorship in response to her alleged mental instabili­ty following Spears’ divorce. The controversy was about whether the arrangement should continue to exist and whether Spears’ father is guilty of conservatorship abuse.

(For a thorough explanation of the situation, the New Yorker has an excellent article.)

An alternative to conservator­ships
Leaving aside the issues of whether or not Britney Spears’ conservatorship was or is an abuse of power, her story still serves as a cautionary tale about the down­sides, dangers and complexities of court-appointed conservatorships and guardianships. Fortunately, a revocable living trust offers you control over when and how in­capacity is determined and what steps should be taken afterward.

A revocable living trust allows you to leave the determination of your incapacity to individuals you trust, whether that is family mem­bers or independent, board-cer­tified doctors. Should a deter­mination of incapacity be made, your designated decision-making representative (or “agent”) can start acting immediately in your place and for your benefit without having to go through a potentially lengthy, complex and expensive court proceeding. A revocable liv­ing trust even offers you the ability to limit the powers of your deci­sion-making representative, such as preventing them from giving away any of your assets.

Many people approach estate planning with the mindset of determining how their assets will be distrib­uted upon their death. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, how useful and multi­faceted a tool the revocable living trust is, especially in keeping deci­sion-making up to you, instead of the courts. A trust can meet your needs and keep you away from a conservatorship situation that would be toxic.

What is unfolding in the Spears family doesn’t have to hap­pen to you.

This issue’s column is written by Stephen Wood, Esq., Certified Specialist – Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law, whose office is in Newbury Park.

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