The conservatorship of pop star Britney Spears has triggered widespread concern over whether and to what extent she, or anyone else, should be deprived of their rights under law to control their financial and personal affairs.
It has also drawn attention to a dangerously burdened system that can put lives in the hands of others with little or no evidence of necessity and then fails to guard against abuse, theft, and neglect. State courts bear the responsibility for judicial appointments, administrative cost and monitoring of guardianships, yet lack the resources and expertise to do it adequately.
The ABA through its Commission on Law and Aging has been on the forefront of the guardianship reform movement and urges implementation of a Guardianship Court Improvement Program (GCIP). A GCIP would provide funding and technical assistance to state courts for data collection and analysis, identify areas of priority for each state, and make significant, consistent improvements to the legal process in the adult guardianship system across the nation.
Adult guardianship, a term sometimes used interchangeably with conservatorship, is a drastic state intervention proceeding where an adult’s authority to make decisions is removed after a determination by a judge that an individual lacks the capacity to make decisions independently. In some jurisdictions, this even deprives them of such fundamental rights as the right to marry and vote. Often described as a “civil death” because it severely curtails an individual’s due process rights, the process delegates that authority to another decision-maker – a court-appointed guardian.
A major proposal for reform is to create a GCIP, modeled on the State Court Improvement Program for child welfare agencies created in the 1990s. The ABA House of Delegates adopted policy in August 2020 urging Congress to create and fund such a program in order to support state court efforts to improve the legal process in the adult guardianship system.
On Sept. 27, 2021, ABA President Reginald M. Turner wrote Sen. Richard Blumenthal, chair of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, as well as ranking member Sen. Ted Cruz, to commend them for scheduling a hearing examining troublesome conservatorship arrangements and bringing to their attention the ABA’s August 2020 policy. The hearing, which the Subcommittee titled “Toxic Conservatorships: The Need for Reform,” was held September 28, at which witnesses urged the federal government to assist the state courts by enacting a GCIP. The ABA requested our letter and policy be included as part of the hearing record. Thus far, no bills have been introduced to create a GCIP, but the ABA will continue to advocate for this important reform.
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