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SALT LAKE CITY — To say there's intense international interest over how pop star Britney Spears lost control of her estimated net worth of $60 million, as well as most of her personal and medical decisions, would be a gross understatement.
It's the stuff of new documentaries and breathless news alerts. The nation is captivated by the latest court proceedings regarding the conservatorship that has controlled most aspects of 39-year-old Spears' life for 13 years.
But Spears' case is atypical of most guardianship and conservatorship petitions brought by attorneys for family members whose relatives are incapacitated to the point they cannot tend to their physical health, safety or self-care without appropriate assistance.
Often, families are in turmoil when they reach out to attorneys like Utahn Kathie Brown Roberts, a nationally certified Utah elder law attorney.
"It is crisis, and it's mostly sad, but happy, usually, in the end because you know they're removed from a situation where it was very horrible and not dignified to giving them a life that they're fed, they're clothed, they're bathed, that kind of stuff," she said.
Typically, Roberts' clients are family members of vulnerable, aging adults.
"Mostly, people come to my firm with worry that people need protection. It's people worrying about whether someone can adequately take care of themselves anymore, whether it's dangerous for them to remain in the environment that they're in," she said.
Often, the vulnerable senior may have Alzheimer's disease or some other form of dementia.
There is also a great deal of financial abuse of elders in Utah and nationally.
"We get a lot of people who are really worried that their family members are being taken advantage of, so we get an order for either guardianship or conservatorship or both if there is evidence that they need help and they need oversight," Roberts said.
Under Utah law, a guardian controls a person's living arrangements and medical care while a conservator deals with the protected person's financial estate.
In California, the word conservatorship is used in two ways — conservatorship of the person and conservatorship of the estate, Roberts said.
The Spears case provides a rare glimpse into the details of the conservatorship that controls most aspects of her life and financial assets because, typically, that information is not fully public.
In order for the California court to appoint a conservator of her person and her estate, there had to be evidence she was incapacitated, Roberts said.
Over the 13 years that the conservatorship has been in place, Spears "has been a very excellent performer and a huge earner," which also sets her apart from typical guardianship or conservatorship cases, Roberts said.
But in a recent Utah Bar Journal article written by Roberts and Allison Barger, an associate in Roberts' law firm, they note that it is "entirely possible for an individual to meet the legal definition of 'incapacity' under law while maintaining various degrees of functionality."
It is also likely that the circumstances that resulted in a judge appointing Spears' father, Jamie Spears, as her conservator no longer exists. Earlier this week, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge suspended Jamie Spears as conservator of his daughter's estate. A certified public accountant was appointed the temporary conservator of Spears' estate until the next court hearing scheduled for Nov. 12.
"Assuming they (her legal counsel) can demonstrate that she has capacity and the reasons no longer exists that she needs someone to watch over her physical well-being and finances, then they'll terminate. That is absolutely a possible outcome," Roberts said.
The attorneys' article also points out that the documentary "Framing Britney Spears" focuses on the duration of the guardianship/conservatorship of the pop star, which has been in place since 2008.
"Utah's law prefers limited guardianships — meaning that the guardian's authority should be limited to only those areas in which a protected person lacks functional abilities. Limiting a guardianship allows for protected persons to exercise their own independence to the extent they are able," they wrote.
Under Utah law, a protected person or other interested party can petition a court to terminate a guardianship. While Utah law has many protections in statute to safeguard protected persons, Roberts and Barger wrote that Utah could benefit from codification of a protected person's bill of rights, which other states have in their statutes.
Utah courts can appoint an emergency guardian without notice upon a finding that a person's welfare requires immediate action. However, the emergency guardianship may not exceed 30 days without notice or hearing.
An emergency guardian can petition a court to seek temporary or permanent guardianship, but Utah law requires the court to appoint an attorney for the protected person if they are not already represented by counsel.
Roberts and Barger note in the journal article that Utah courts lack the resources to oversee guardianship and conservatorship cases. The volunteer Utah Court Visitor Program is also limited in its ability to monitor the cases. Adult Protective Services also lacks sufficient funding to pursue allegations of abuse, they wrote.
"Additional legislation and resources would be needed to fully guard against guardianship and conservatorship abuse," they wrote.