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What is a conservatorship?

What is a conservatorship?
Image source: Getty Images

Conservatorship is a hot topic right now. But what is it, and why is it in the spotlight? Let’s break down what you should know. 

What is a conservatorship?

A conservatorship is a common legal arrangement in the United States. It gives one or more people (the conservators) control over another adult’s personal and financial affairs. Why is this necessary? Well, sometimes we lose the capacity to make our own decisions if we’re ill or infirm in some way.

So, conservatorships ensure there’s someone on our side, helping us make some decisions or providing for us when we can’t. 

There are four types:

  1. Financial: someone has power over the ‘conservatee’s’ financial affairs, including tax, investments and real estate.
  2. Physical: they have control over the person’s health care and wellbeing.
  3. General: gives someone control over the person’s financial and physical affairs. It’s more common than a physical conservatorship.
  4. Limited: the conservator can only make a few decisions on someone’s behalf – there’s still a lot of personal autonomy. 

Let’s check out some famous examples to see how it all works.

Britney Spears

First, let’s talk about Britney Spears. She’s been under a conservatorship since 2008, and she’s currently fighting the order. But what’s going on, and why is she fighting it? Here’s what we know. 

  • In February 2008, Britney suffered a mental breakdown. The court appointed her father as a temporary (and then permanent) conservator.
  • Britney’s father had a huge amount of control over her life. He made career decisions for her and controlled her finances.
  • Next, in 2019, her father stepped down for a while and let someone else take control, but he now wants to return as co-conservator.  
  • It’s clear that Britney doesn’t want her father as a co-conservator. And so, there’s a legal battle going on. 

The upshot? Britney wants some autonomy back, but her father is still co-conservator for the time being. We can only watch and wait to see what happens next.

Amanda Bynes

Next, we have actress Amanda Bynes. After her mental health declined in 2014, the court appointed her mother as conservator. She’s been in charge of Bynes’s estate ever since. 

Joni Mitchell

Finally, there’s music icon Joni Mitchell.

Back in 2015, Joni Mitchell suffered a brain injury and couldn’t look after herself for some time. The court appointed her friend, Leslie Morris, as conservator until she got better. 

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Do we have anything similar in the UK?

Yes. It’s called a deputyship in England and Wales, and a guardianship in Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

In both cases, the premise is the same: these orders help safeguard someone’s finances and physical health when they can’t look after themselves. 

What responsibilities does a conservator have?

Conservators have a ‘fiduciary duty’ to the conservatee. They must act in their best interests at all times. Duties include:

  • Paying bills on time (e.g. credit card payments)
  • Filing taxes
  • Overseeing investments 
  • Providing money for essentials 

They can’t use the conservatee’s money for personal gain. 

How long does a conservatorship last?

It depends. Some only last for 90 days or so, while others can last forever. It all comes down to the individual case and what the person needs.

Can you challenge a conservatorship?

Yes. If the conservatee is once again capable of making their own financial decisions, they can challenge a conservatorship. It’s not always easy to suspend a conservatorship or replace the conservator, though.

You must get legal advice if you plan on challenging such an arrangement.


If there’s anything we can take from the Britney Spears saga, it’s this: there’s nothing simple about conservatorships. And, in reality, the same principle applies in the UK. You must think really carefully before agreeing to act as deputy or guardian, and you must always have someone’s best interests in mind. 

Worried that someone’s abusing their position as deputy or guardian? Contact either the Office of the Public Guardian, or the Scottish equivalent.

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