What do a megastar singer, Britney Spears, and an elderly Alabama philanthropist, Joann Bashinsky, have in common? A whole lot more than you think.
As we learned from the recent hit documentary about Britney Spears' ongoing conservatorship battle to regain control of her life, abuse of this legal mechanism is a national epidemic in need of drastic reform.
The New York Times feature, which was released in early February, exposed shocking details about Spears' legal dispute with her father, who has done everything in his power to keep control over the singer’s personal finances since she turned 26.
"If I wasn't under the restraints that I'm under right now, you know, with all the lawyers and doctors, and people analyzing me every day, and all that kind of stuff … if that wasn't there, I would feel so liberated and feel like myself," a young Spears said in 2008 – one of the only times that she publicly commented on her conservatorship battle.
Am I the most unlikely person you’d ever expect to be siding with Britney Spears over her father? Not at all.
I recognize the artistic gifts Britney has, but she should also enjoy the personal freedom that every American adult should experience. It’s possible she might make business or even artistic mistakes, but like the rest of us, she’s entitled to make decisions for her own life.
So, unless she is about to commit imminent physical harm to others or herself, she should be free to make her own decisions about her life and career. They might be brilliant and take her to an even higher level of super-stardom, or they could destroy her career and result in costing her the entirety of her fortune, but it is HER life.
In 2019, Spears' case gained national attention thanks to the #FreeBritney movement on social media, which highlighted the behavior of the singer’s father and other players in her inner circle.
The ongoing media interest in Spears' legal struggle, however, comes with its own curse – it creates a perception that the pop icon is a unique victim of a dysfunctional family corrupted by sudden fame and wealth.
The enormous scope of the conservatorship abuse epidemic goes far beyond Spears.
Sadly, this is not so. The enormous scope of the conservatorship abuse epidemic goes far beyond Spears, but often gets ignored by mainstream news outlets that mainly cover famed celebrities and prominent public figures.
In recent years, dozens of guardianship abuse cases have sparked outrage in communities across America, including in Florida where I lived for almost 10 years until recently. Last year, former court-appointed guardian Rebecca Fierle was charged with aggravated elder abuse and neglect following the death of a ward in her care. Investigations into Fierle have also allegedly uncovered staggering conflicts of interest and double-billing among hundreds of cases that she handled in the state.
But one of the most extreme examples of conservatorship abuse occurred in Alabama, where one of the state’s most generous philanthropists – the late Golden Flake heiress Joann Bashinsky – spent the last days of her life fighting to protect her own estate in what Joel Blankenship, legal counsel for the Joann Bashinsky estate, called "as predatory and exploitative a case I have ever seen."
Court documents detail how for the better part of a year, she repeatedly requested that her employees, John McKleroy and Patty Townsend, diversify her investments, and they continually ignored her requests. Finally, after finding out that they also unilaterally wrote themselves into her will, Bashinsky was left with no other choice but to terminate their employment.
In apparent retaliation, McKleroy and Townsend filed an emergency petition alleging that Bashinsky had dementia and was unfit to handle her own estate.
Those close to Bashinsky, and indeed Bashinsky herself, saw this as nothing more than a bold-faced attempt to use legal mechanisms to steal Bashinsky’s fortune out from under her.
Bashinsky’s personal physician, based on his own evaluation and consultations with both a geriatrician and a neurologist, found her perfectly competent, stating clearly that she did not have dementia or any other psychiatric neurological conditions.
That didn’t stop Jefferson County Probate Judge Alan King from granting the temporary order and appointing Greg Hawley – a former law partner of former Democrat U.S. Sen. Doug Jones – as conservator of Mama B’s $200 million-plus estate in October 2019.
After more than half a year of legal battles, the Alabama Supreme Court finally overturned the emergency conservatorship order in 2020.
Remarkably, however, even Bashinsky’s recent death hasn’t deterred attacks on her estate. Just days after her passing, petitioners filed three new hostile motions against the beloved Alabama philanthropist.
Despite the wild media frenzy around Britney Spears, conservatorship abuse is a nationwide epidemic that impacts countless U.S. seniors with very little legal recourse available for conservatees to escape it. That is precisely why it deserves national bipartisan reform and a grassroots campaign to protect the most vulnerable members of our society entrapped by it.