On June 23, Britney Spears is set to take the virtual stage during a Los Angeles County probate court Zoom session and, for the first time in her 13-year conservatorship, will speak before judge about the people running her personal and financial life. California probate law reformers are already applauding. According to some, the fan forces of #FreeBritney may ultimately take credit for much of the momentum behind pending legislation in Sacramento loosening the legal restraints holding thousands of Californians in custody of court-appointed guardians, similar to the Toxic singer’s bizarre situation.
“There is little question that the publicity around Britney is creating more coverage,” says Richard Calhoun, cofounder and cochair of the Coalition for Elder & Disability Rights (CEDAR). Also citing other recent pop-culture products regarding the conservatorship system—an episode of Alex Gibney’s Netflix series Dirty Money, the recent film I Care A Lot, and the Billie Mintz doc The Guardians—Calhoun says, “The real question is: Will it matter?”
CEDAR is tracking seven bills pending before the California State Legislature that address various aspects of probate reform—more bills than usual. Some are the result a reform act passed in 2006, increasing oversight of the professional guardians and fiduciaries administered by the state’s Consumer Protection Department. The 2006 reforms failed to take effect because they were never funded under previous budget appropriations. That remains a big hurdle, says Calhoun, even with the current $75 Billion surplus. “The way [Gov.] Newsom is spending the surplus,” Calhoun says, “it will likely all be gone before conservatorship reforms are funded.”
One bill tracked by CEDAR with the best chance of passing is SB724, which requires implementation of the 2006 Reforms. Additionally, it allows a conservatee to hire their own attorney even when that attorney is not on the court’s list of approved attorneys—a big issue in Britney’s case. The bill also requires the attorney to be a “zealous advocate for the conservatee,” according to Calhoun, a rewrite of the current language stating “best interests” of the conservatee. “This is a huge difference over the best interests model,” says Calhoun, citing the issue of “who decides what is in the best interests of another person.”
For a moment, recently, it seemed SB724 had been stalled, due to opposition from the Tax and Estate lobbying section of the powerful California Lawyers Association (TEXCOM). But a June 3 tweet from California State Senator Ben Allen of District 26, representing the Westside, Hollywood, and the South Bay, reassured reformers and #FreeBritney folks who’ve been contacting him about advocating for SB724: “The bill has not been shelved; it is very much alive. It has been made a “two-year bill” for negotiations and I am committed to passing the bill out in January.”
Linda Kincaid, co-founder and co-chair of CEDAR, comments: “TEXCOM is sooooo not prepared for the Britney-ites!!!”
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