For families including those with loved ones who have dementia, navigating the system of conservatorship can be daunting.
In November 2020, a Los Angeles judge declined to suspend the father of Britney Spears from his central role of controlling the celebrity’s career and personal life, captivating public attention. The pop stars’ fans turned their attention to a legal arrangement, known as a conservatorship, appointed by the court 12 years ago following concerns over her mental health. The celebrity’s recent legal battles over the conservatorship, or guardianship in some states, have opened up broader discussions about the challenges of navigating the system and the need for reforms.
A conservator — a family member, an attorney or another professional — is appointed by the court to manage the affairs of an adult who has lost capacity to make their own decisions, an arrangement typically established for people in comas, those with dementia, or others serious illnesses or injuries. However, for families seeking the legal arrangement, including those with loved ones who have dementia, coping with the complex legal process can often be difficult and overwhelming.
In a recent radio story for National Public Radio program 1A, Lori Evans from Salt Lake City said that her family struggled for years to obtain the legal arrangement for her mother, whose symptoms of dementia were deteriorating: “It was this cruel irony that she had the money, but that we weren’t able to use it for her care,” Evans told NPR. “She didn’t want to say that she needed any help, thinking that it might make it so she didn’t get to stay in her house.”
However, Evans’ mother resisted seeing a doctor to evaluate and diagnose her condition. She became distrustful of others as her symptoms of dementia emerged.“We needed a diagnosis [for our mother],” Evans said. “But with dementia, she was really suspicious of people, especially doctors, and she didn’t want to go. She was really hesitant.”
Another troubling symptom emerged: Her mother began donating a substantial amount of money to charities — some were likely shams and others were legitimate.
Without a clinical assessment of her mother, the family’s chances of retaining a conservatorship/guardianship through the court faltered. So, they made do, doing the best they could to look after her. “The family, at this point, was doing all that we could to be caregivers,” Evans said. “We took shifts. We were trying to take care of her, but we all had our own households and families and jobs. It was really difficult.”
While families like Evans’ may face difficulties in seeking conservatorship/guardianship for loved ones, law professor at the University of Iowa Josephine Gittler said that, on the flipside, the legal arrangement can be an overreach at times.
“The other side of this particular coin is that, sometimes, persons are put under guardianship or conservatorship by a court that don’t necessarily need guardianship or conservatorship,” Gittler told NPR. “There may be a less drastic alternative. Even if they need a guardianship or conservatorship, they may need a limited guardianship or conservatorship, rather than a full guardianship or conservatorship.”
A host of other challenges can arise after the court has granted the arrangement. Gittler noted that guardians and conservators often lack the training and support necessary to provide care and protection for a person under the legal arrangements.
She added that courts all too often fail to ensure that people under such conservatorship/guardianship are treated with dignity, and are guarded from abuse and neglect.
“There’s been a lot of concern about guardianship and conservatorship systems at the state level,” Gittler said. “That’s given rise to a movement to reform them in a number of states.”
After all, the legal arrangement can pave the way for people to receive the care that they need. For Evans’ family, it wasn’t until years later that her mother agreed to see the doctors. Eventually, a clinician diagnosed Evans’ mother with dementia, and the family successfully petitioned for the legal arrangement. They then found care services for Evans’ mother, and fulfilled her greatest desire of remaining at home.
“We got caregivers for her and we were able to pay them from her own funds,” Evans said. “She loved her caregivers, and she was able to stay in her house.”