Experts Say It’s Unusual to End a Conservatorship Without an Evaluation

Several experts said Friday that while they personally supported ending Britney Spears’s conservatorship, they thought it unusual that the Los Angeles probate court did so without requiring the pop star to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

“I’m surprised,” said Robert Dinerstein, a disability rights law professor at American University. He said that persuading judges to overturn a conservatorship in the first place is unusual.

But when they do, he said, they typically require a psychological evaluation.

“Within the relatively rare number of cases where a conservatorship is terminated, it’s even more unusual to do that without proof they had capacity,” Professor Dinerstein said.

Judge Brenda Penny, who terminated the conservatorship, said that further psychological assessments of Ms. Spears were unnecessary, because the conservatorship was technically voluntary.

Victoria Haneman, a trusts and estates law professor at Creighton University, said California probate code does not require a mental health evaluation for the conservatorship to be terminated. She said the underlying diagnosis explaining why Ms. Spears was put in conservatorship is unavailable because the record is sealed, making it tough to determine what sort of evaluation might have been required to show that the guardianship was no longer needed.

Nevertheless, mental issues seemed to be a part of the reason, and so she had expected that an assessment would have been required to answer whether those problems were now in the past, she said.

“I am extremely surprised that this conservatorship is ended without an evaluation,” she said.

The experts stressed that they were not commenting on Ms. Spears’s mental health status, of which they are not informed — only on the process as they have experienced it.

Typically in deciding whether to end a conservatorship, the experts said, a judge will consider whether the conservatee has regained “capacity,” using a psychological assessment and other factors to determine cognitive ability and decision making.

This includes whether they can weigh risks and benefits regarding things like medical care, marriage and contracts. The person’s ability to feed, clothe and shelter themselves may also be examined.

The purpose of an assessment is to determine whether the conditions that led to the imposition of the conservatorship in the first place have now stabilized or are in the past.

Ms. Spears’s case has been considered extremely unusual because while viewed as unable to care for herself by the court, she continued to work extensively as a performing musician and global celebrity, bringing in millions of dollars.

The singer herself had insisted that the arrangement end without her having to undergo an additional mental evaluation, and her lawyer had noted that lawyers for her father had agreed that no mental or psychological evaluation was required under California probate court.

Zoe Brennan-Kohn, a disabilities rights lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said though typically some kind of psychological evaluation is part of the process of ending a conservatorship, it “makes sense that there would be no evaluation because everyone agreed.”

“If everyone in the picture thinks this person does not need to be in this invasive situation,” she said, “we don’t want courts to be second-guessing that. Everyone said you should end this. I think it’s appropriate that the judge said, ‘Let’s end this.’”

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