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Conservatorships have been getting a lot of attention thanks to pop star Britney Spears and her legal battle to get out of the 13 year arrangement that made her unable to handle her own finances and personal affairs. 

While the #FreeBritney movement might be the first time that many have heard of conservatorships, it shouldn’t be the last. 

Broadly speaking, a conservatorship is a legal status where a court appoints a person to manage the financial affairs of an individual who has been deemed unable or unfit to handle it themselves. This could be because they are incapacitated, deemed “incompetent,” or because they are a minor. In the case of Britney Spears (because she lives in the state of California) her conservatorship was two-fold; her conservators served as both “conservator of the person” and “conservator of the estate,” meaning that they had almost total control over where she lived, what medications she took, who she spent time with and when she worked. In other states the “conservator of the person,” role is referred to as guardianship. 

Britney Spears is far from the only person to have been subjected to a conservatorship in her life. It’s often thought that these kinds of arrangements are only entered into when an individual is in the final stages of life, due to old age or terminal illness, but that’s not always the case. Today, there are an estimated 1.5 million adults who live under a conservatorship or guardianship in the United States alone. 

Courts only place people under conservatorships if they are assessed as having some type of disability. In Britney Spears’ case, we don’t know (and have no right to know) the specifics of that assessment, but we do know that it was related to her infamous and public mental breakdown in 2008. 

We also know the horrific details of Spears’ conservatorship. She was forced to take medications she didn’t want to be on, was unable to marry her boyfriend and forbidden from removing an IUD when she wanted to get pregnant. In her testimony, Spears told the court that her driver’s license was taken away and her diet was controlled to the point where she was not allowed to drink coffee. 

Under her conservatorship, Spears was denied basic civil liberties. In fact, that is what a conservatorship is designed to do, they remove civil liberties from an individual and transfer them to another under the assumption that they will be better suited to make those kinds of decisions for that person. 

For adults living with disabilities, a conservatorship is a way for courts to strip them of dignity, humanity, and basic civil rights. All individuals deserve to be able to make their own choices, and they deserve to be given the support to make those choices. There are cases where adults living with disabilities have support needs and require different care. In 2008, Spears needed care and support, and members of her family used that as evidence that she was unfit to make decisions concerning her own life. 

In an ideal world, conservatorships would be granted only in situations where someone is genuinely incapacitated with the full knowledge that conservators are acting with the conservatees’ best interests at heart. Sadly that is not often the reality. 

It happened to Britney Spears and it happens to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who are determined in a court of law to have some kind of disability. Disability is not a reason to remove someone’s civil rights. Adults living with disabilities are adults and therefore should have the right to make decisions about everything that any other adult has the right to make decisions about. 

So while you may agree that Britney Spears’ conservatorship was abusive, and you wanted to #FreeBritney, it’s worth thinking about just how many others are having their rights removed without anybody talking about it. Let’s support their freedom too.