A 39-year-old Britney Spears stood before the court last week in the ongoing battle over her conservatorship which she calls "abusive." As she addressed the court, Spears stated that she is not "anyone's slave" and "deserves to have a life." This battle has been ongoing for years but came under renewed scrutiny following a New York Times documentary called "Framing Britney Spears" and the rise once again of the Free Britney movement aimed at releasing her from the conservatorship that she has been under since a mental breakdown in 2007.
In 2019, the conservatorship won a defamation lawsuit against a blogger named Anthony Elia, who at the time the primary driver of the "Free Britney" movement. In that case, Elia went one step too far by alleging on Instagram that Spear's conservator was controlling her social media account to make her "appear more troubled and more in need of help than she actually is." The result -- he was sued for defamation. Reading what Elia wrote flies into the face of reality when the history of Spear's own behaviors, which were well documented on video and photos, through the years indicated that she required supervision.
Now, the case is back before the public once again. Those who support Spears are painting her conservator in an extremely negative light while spotlighting her as a victim, being controlled by others. But the question that needs to be asked is, would Spears have survived her out-of-control lifestyle if someone did not step in and bring this speeding train of a life to a halt before it wrecked for all to see?
What Are Conservatorships and Guardianships?
In many states, guardianships and conservatorships are all wrapped together under one responsibility. In other states, these two responsibilities are clearly delineated with nuances that depend on the situation present. Where there is a difference, we will briefly try to explain them.
Generally, a conservator is an individual or corporation appointed by a court to manage the estate, property, and/or other business affairs of an individual whom the court has determined is unable to do so for himself or herself. The individual who is being protected is called the "protected person."
A guardianship provides for the care of someone who is not able to care for himself or herself. The court may appoint a guardian if there is clear and convincing evidence that the person is incapacitated and that he or she requires continuing care or supervision. The individual who is being watched over on behalf of the court through the guardian is called the "ward."
In a nutshell, a conservatorship has to do with the management of things that the ward or protected person owns or has had control over while a guardianship has to do with the management of the life actions and needs of the ward or protected person.
When it comes to the field of elder law, many are used to seeing guardians put into place to allow adults, attorneys, or other caregivers to provide care and supervision for elderly individuals who may be suffering from various forms of dementia. However, it is becoming more and more common to see such action taken when children or disabled adults, typically with mental health or addiction issues, are unable to make responsible decisions and need supervision to continue to live independently.
Every state has specific requirements and provisions when such a case is brought before the bench to avoid the possibility of abuse. The court usually requires an in-depth medical or psychiatric report as well as an assessment as to the life skills functioning of the individual. Each case is as different as the individual so many particulars must be taken into account.
Before a guardian or conservator is appointed, the individual being put under the supervision of a guardian or conservator receives notice of the proceedings and has an opportunity to object to it and hire their own counsel to represent them.
In the end, it is the court's responsibility, not an individual or family member, to determine if an individual is incapacitated and to provide for the protection of that person's rights and due process during the proceedings. If a conservator/guardian is assigned, the court will determine the guardian’s duties and ensure that the guardian satisfies his or her fiduciary duties to the ward -- which includes an annual accounting and status report as part of the oversight.
"I can't think of any attorney who likes the concept of guardianship or conservatorship," said certified elder law attorney RJ Connelly III. "This step strips a person of their civil rights and should be the option of last resort. However, there are many cases where lives are saved because of this action."
However, some organizations have made a cottage industry out of fighting against conservators and guardians, as in the Spears case, arguing that "the system" is controlling the ward and his or her finances for their own gains. Certainly, no one wants to deny a person his or her civil rights but in these cases, it does save lives when the person is heading towards self-destruction.
For the average American, having empathy for a person worth millions of dollars, as in the case of Spears, is hard. Many think that they have so many advantages over the rest of us because of their wealth that their struggles deserve to become entertainment for the world. But think about the disadvantages they also have -- just because of their wealth and celebrity -- every move, every mistake, every dirty deed is videotaped and played over and over for millions to see, judge, and laugh about. Add to this, their friends and "trusted" associates are willing to sell their most intimate secrets to websites and gossip shows for monetary gain.
Imagine your worst time, poorest decision or emotionally vulnerable moment videotaped for the world to see and played over and over to the delight of others who dislike you for no good reason other than, in most cases, jealousy. Although money can be a blessing, it also means more problems and access to those things that could lead to negative outcomes for those with addictions or mental health struggles, as in the case of Britney Spears.
Out of Control
In the winter of 2007, Spear's behaviors began to spiral out of control for the world to see. First, she entered a hair salon in California and asked the owner to shave her head. Initially thought to be a publicity stunt, it was actually a well-viewed and publicized meltdown that occurred after failed marriages, loss of custody of her children, and increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol.
Although this was a young lady in need of help, paparazzi and television talk shows documented her antics for the entertainment of the masses. For months, Spears was followed by cameras and reporters, documenting every misstep and every mistake. After years of treatment and time out of the spotlight, Spears decided to go back to work in Las Vegas and planned to begin to tour again.
Shortly after making this announcement, things quickly turned sour for her. Legal issues and family problems began to resurface and she canceled the tour stating she was going on an "indefinite hiatus" which ended with her admission into psychiatric treatment.
During her first court date regarding her conservatorship, the "Free Britney" movement gained momentum, and her former manager, who had been accused of numerous improprieties while making outrageous statements about her conservators, joined them. This forced her legal team to seek a restraining order against him.
Then in late August, her longtime doctor, Tim Benson, who was tasked by the court to develop a detailed report about Spear's current functioning, died. In 2019, her father Jamie resigned as her conservator due to poor health and requested that a temporary one be put into place until January of 2020.
Spear’s longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, who was not a part of the conservatorship, supported this move, saying “a conservatorship is not a jail. It helps Britney make business decisions and manage her life in ways she can’t do on her own right now.”
Spears Is Not Alone
Unfortunately, Spears is not the only celebrity involved with a conservator. Amanda Bynes was a star on the children's channel, Nickelodeon, but soon experienced multiple breakdowns and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. The former star was put under a conservatorship headed up by her mother, Lynn. This included control over her finances, health, and medical decisions.
In that case, the conservatorship was approved in 2013 following a series of very public incidents that included an arrest for possession of marijuana, attempted tampering with evidence, and reckless endangerment after throwing a bong from a 36th-floor apartment in Manhattan to the street below. Two months later, she was ordered into psychiatric care after setting a fire in a neighbor’s driveway.
She appeared to do better after this incident but in 2014, she was arrested after a second DUI and was kicked out of a fashion school she had enrolled in. But it didn't stop there. It soon came to light that she was spending her money foolishly and recklessly. Receipts and credit card slips indicated that she had been going into jewelry stores like Cartier’s in Beverly Hills, buying expensive pieces and handing them out to strangers on the street.
Then came a very public battle with her family, which some say was supported and urged on by a group of non-family members who felt that Bynes was being held in a conservatorship "illegally". This rift between her and her parents resulted in Bynes roaming the streets of Hollywood homeless. When approached by paparazzi, she would rail against her parents accusing them of refusing to give her money for living expenses or to pay rent for an apartment. Things then took an even darker turn for Bynes as she began making delusional statements.
She claimed that a microchip had been implanted in her head that allowed her parents to control her thoughts and actions. This was then followed by accusations that her father had sexually abused her and then made a series of death threats against her parents. In an awkward attempt at control or emotional blackmail, she publicly offered to withdrawal her accusations if they gave her back control over her money. This series of actions by Bynes pushed her overwhelmed parents to assign the conservatorship to a private company and move away from her.
In the entertainment business, where performers have access to large amounts of money and suffer from a mental health disorder or addiction, the outcomes could be deadly unless an intervention occurs. And no field of entertainment has been a more unfortunate example of this than professional wrestling.
The Tragedy of Pro Wrestling
As someone who had been involved in the business of pro wrestling for decades as well as being a licensed addictions clinician, I had a unique view of how these performers struggled, often alone, with demons fed by large sums of money that they unsuccessfully attempted to manage themselves. First, a brief explanation of the "sports entertainment" business and how it changed some three decades ago.
Before the 1980s, pro wrestling had only been a financially lucrative proposition for a very select few -- usually those who wore the championship belt or promoters in large cities and arenas. Then came the professional wrestling boom of the '80s, now called the new golden age of wrestling, that saw a surge in the popularity of professional wrestling in the United States and around the world.
The expansion of cable television and pay-per-view access, coupled with the efforts of promoters such as Vince McMahon, saw wrestling shift from numerous regional organizations to one dominated by two nationwide companies -- McMahon's World Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling.
Suddenly, performers who earned a comfortable living while being on the road a few nights a week were now wrestling nearly every night with little time off. The payouts, which previously had averaged around $750 a week, saw an exponential increase with wrestlers often making that much or more in one night. But with more work in the ring came more injuries and more time away from those you cared about. And unlike the other major entertainment fields, there were no "nights off" to heal or take personal time. In the pro wrestling business, a wrestler only got paid only if they performed and if they didn't couldn't, promoters were quick to replace them -- so working on broken ankles, with concussions and torn muscles became a necessity to keep your job.
The dysfunctional culture of pro wrestling led to the wrestlers taking more and more pain medication in order to perform and avoid losing their "spot" on the card. This self-medication led to addiction. And, living out of a suitcase seven days a week, stopping only to grab a night's sleep at a motel room, led to loneliness, boredom, and increased alcohol use. Mix alcohol and pain medication, add loneliness and depression, and it became a recipe for disaster that played itself out for those knowledgable in the wrestling business but was largely ignored by the media and the fans.
Although there exists a perception that pro wrestlers live an extravagant lifestyle today, three decades ago, nothing was further from the truth. Unlike rock stars and other pro athletes of the time, pro wrestlers were solitary performers -- independent contractors -- not supported by a union, a large staff of people, or agents who looked out for their well-being. In cases like Britney Spears, managers and agents saw a problem and offered help. When it came to pro wrestlers, there was no one there nor did anyone seem to care.
Money, access to drugs and alcohol, and no one to offer guidance to performers led to one of the most frightening and least talked about dark sides of the wrestling business -- the untimely deaths of performers due to drug overdoses and suicide -- as well as those who died young from what may have been listed as natural causes but in most cases had a link to the lifestyle they lived.
In a research study by academics at the University of Eastern Michigan, they followed a group of 557 former pro wrestlers. Of the 62 wrestlers in this group who died between 1985 and 2011, 49 died before the age of 50. Of this group, 24 of the 49 died before the age of 40, and two even died before the age of 30. Mortality rates for wrestlers, aged between 45 and 54, was 2.9 times greater than the rate for men in the wider US population, the study found.
Because many wrestlers lacked the basic understanding of money management as large amounts of cash began flowing their way, they used it to fuel a lifestyle that led to their deaths. Having managers or agents could have helped save many by controlling their finances thereby limiting their exposure to illicit drugs, but it was not to be. And even after retirement, many continued to spend and fund a lifestyle that ended their lives prematurely. Today, many of these wrestlers, now in their 60's, continue to drag their broken bodies to perform in small gyms and church basements for a $75.00 payoff because they didn't save money and have no other marketable skills. And yes, even as seniors, they continue to use alcohol and pain medication to survive. There continues to be no one there to help for those on the independent circuit.
Some of those who died were friends of mine, others were acquaintances, but nonetheless, they died because help wasn't there. Among the performers we lost due to overdose or suicide included David Von Erich (age 25), Umaga (age 36), Mike von Erich (age 23), Bobby Duncum, Jr. (age 34), Buzz Sawyer (age 32), Chris von Erich (age 21), Kerry von Erich (age 33), Lance Cade (age 29), Gino Hernandez (age 29), and Rick Rude (age 40). This list numbers into three figures. This is where someone, like a conservator or guardian, could have stepped in and helped the person "right the ship" and perhaps, save a life.
The good news is that the World Wrestling Federation has made addiction treatment available to their stars who present with such a problem and many have made use of this program. Unfortunately, it is only available to former and current employees. Independent wrestlers, who number in the thousands, have nowhere to turn unless they make their own choice to enter rehab, and this usually occurs only after they have either overdosed and survived or been involved in a crime.
The Story of "Sunny"
One of the most popular female characters to come out of the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) some 25 years ago was Tammy Lynn Sytch, known to most as "Sunny", the seductive femme fatale manager who garnered a tremendous following, especially among young male fans. But her sudden rise to fame, and the death of her longtime partner and fellow wrestling personality Chris Candido from an infection caused by a wrestling injury, led her down the path of self-destruction.
Rumors of her involvement with drugs and abuse of alcohol circulated through the industry and upon leaving WWE, she moved on to work sporadic dates for independent promotions. In 2012, she was arrested five times in less than a month and charged with disorderly conduct, third-degree burglary, and violation of a protective order. In early 2013, she was arrested yet again for violating the protective order that ended in a jail sentence of nearly four months. But this was not the end of her problems.
In 2015, she was arrested again, this time for three driving under the influence charges and she pleaded guilty, to which she later admitted that she was "blackout drunk" during the arrests. This was a violation of her earlier parole and she ended up in jail again. After her release in 2016, she remained under the radar until 2017 when she was arrested again in New Jersey for two more DUIs and fleeing the scene of an accident. Following this arrest, she failed to show up in court and a bench warrant was issued for her and she accrued two more fugitive from justice charges. She was eventually picked up and extradited to Pennsylvania and was paroled in 2018. In February 2019, she was arrested and jailed again for DUI and was released in February of 2020. A few months later, she was arrested and jailed yet again, with charges including eluding a police officer, violation of a restraining order, and operating a vehicle under license suspension. She was sent to the Monmouth County Correctional Institution where she was recently released. So now those in the wrestling world watch -- will Sunny be able to get her life on track?
A Double-edged Sword
Whether it be a Hollywood celebrity, sports star, or an elderly neighbor, conservators and guardians serve a valuable purpose for those unable to care for themselves or those who may be targets of someone wishing to exploit them. As for those individuals and groups who advocate against conservators and guardians citing the loss of that person's civil rights, these same people would most likely be the first ones to demand answers if the individual was permitted to engage in continued self-destructive behaviors that led to their death.
Seeking control over another should only occur when all other methods of addressing the problem have been exhausted. No matter what, it is a delicate process -- even more so when family members are involved. In the majority of these cases, the ward will usually not agree that such an action is needed and the family unit ends up being tossed in a sea of emotional turmoil.
These cases present a Hobbesian choice between allowing the individual to continue down the path of self-destruction versus the potential of destroying family relationships -- usually the only place where they can find the love and support they need. Yet, it's a choice that needs to be made when someone's well-being is at stake and living with the guilt of doing nothing becomes equally devastating.
It also presents a no-win situation for attorneys and the court because no matter what the outcome, each time a conservatorship or guardianship is filed, the result is that someone’s life will most likely be changed forever.