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Franca Tavella is a guardianship expert at Philadelphia-based law firm Kleinbard LLC. Photo: Kleinbard LLC
Franca Tavella is a guardianship expert at Philadelphia-based law firm Kleinbard LLC. Photo: Kleinbard LLC

Breaking down Britney Spears’ conservatorship with guardianship expert Franca Tavella

Tavella believes Spears should have been able to request new counsel well before this year.

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In June, pop icon Britney Spears virtually spoke for 20 minutes to a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, giving her testimony on the way her years-long conservatorship has negatively impacted her life. 

For 13 years, the now 39-year-old pop star has been subject to constant surveillance, a grueling workload, and multiple restrictions hindering her from making decisions for herself regarding finances, marriage and even her own healthcare. 

Led by concerned fans and human rights activists, the #FreeBritney movement has gained national attention. The issue even made its way into Congress, with the introduction of the FREE Act

Spears’ story has brought up many conversations, including disability rights, reproductive freedom, and the rights of individuals held in similar legal arrangements. 

Franca Tavella, a guardianship expert from Kleinbard LLC in Philadelphia, recently sat down with AL DÍA to shed light on the rights a person has under these arrangements.

After 13 years, Spears’ court-appointed attorney, Samuel D. Ingham, III resigned, and a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge ruled that the singer could select her own attorney to represent her case moving forward.

“Although considered a win for #FreeBritney supporters, it seems obvious that Spears should have been awarded this right long ago,” Tavella wrote in a recent blog post

With Spears’ case continuing to make headlines, Tavella feels it’s imperative for Pennsylvania residents, and all those following the movement, to understand the ins and outs of these arrangements, and the essential rights of the alleged incapacitated person. 

First and foremost, Tavella explained, the alleged incapacitated person (AIP) must be notified of the petition and hearing at least 20 days in advance. It’s also crucial that they know how their rights will be impacted. 

“The key is that you kind of explain that in language that the alleged incapacitated person is as likely to understand, which is difficult, because you’re often dealing with folks who have dementia, Down Syndrome, autism or some other severe cognitive impairment,” Tavella said. 

An AIP also has the right to request counsel, to have counsel appointed by the court and to have this service paid for if needed. An AIP may also petition for an independent psychiatric evaluation to determine their mental capacity. 

Once the hearing is completed and the individual is determined to be incapacitated, they must be informed within 10 days of their right to appeal the decision, and to petition to change or terminate the guardianship. 

An AIP also has the right to petition the court for a review hearing at any time during the guardianship, but especially under circumstances where the person’s capacity has significantly changed or if their guardian has failed to perform their duties in accordance with the law or within the best interests of the incapacitated person. 

Given these facts, it is unclear how and why Spears was held under this conservatorship for over a decade. 

Spears has been quietly challenging the conservatorship for years before achieving any victories. 

“In 2014, she first said that she didn’t want her father to serve as her conservator because of his own drinking and his shortcomings. That’s seven years. So it’s just a shame that it’s taken so long for it [the case] to get where it is now. But hopefully with the new attorney and this recent petition to remove her father, things will start moving along more quickly,” Tavella said. 

Despite her mental health crisis in 2007, Spears has kept incredibly busy with her career, drawing into question the validity of her incapacity. 

Since the artist’s conservatorship began, she was able to release four albums, went on tour and served as a judge on the X Factor

“So it just begs the question… how could she be so incapaciated to justify a 13-year long guardianship, but yet she has enough capacity to be performing and releasing albums, touring and serving as a judge on a TV show,” Tavella said. 

With healthcare decisions, an appointed guardian does have the authority to make all medical decisions for an AIP. 

Tavella serves as a guardian for a Pennsylvania resident who suffered a severe traumatic injury, and she was contacted to authorize healthcare decisions such as administering the COVID-19 vaccine and getting put under anesthesia for a procedure. 

“That’s the kind of burden you’re looking at, that the guardian of the person is tasked with making all of these decisions for a person. So in that sense, if Britney was so incapacitated, then yes, the guardian would be able to cover her reproductive rights,” Tavella said. 

But the questions still remain: if Spears had the capacity to choose her own attorney, to perform on tour, serve as a guest judge on the X Factor, write and release albums, why does she not have the capacity to choose whether or not she remains on birth control?

Just as she wrote in her recent blog post, Tavella believes that Spears should have had the chance to request new counsel long before this year. 

There’s no denial that Spears went through some serious issues with mental health and substance use, but Tavella finds it hard to believe that the singer had no capacity to understand her right to request counsel. 

“Spears should have very much had that right much sooner, to retain her own counsel,” she said. 

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