The ongoing legal drama of Britney Spears and her conservatorship has introduced many people to the concept of a conservatorship.
The definition of a conservatorship, which can also be known as guardianship, varies from state to state. Generally, a conservatorship is a legal arrangement in which a judge determines a person is unable to take care of their health or finances and appoints a third party, often a family member or friend, known as the conservator, to handle those responsibilities.
In response to stories about the conservatorship involving Britney Spears, people on social media have asked how many people are in conservatorships.
Is the number of conservatorships in the U.S. tracked?
No, the number of conservatorships in the U.S is not tracked. Experts and groups researching conservatorships say some states can provide reliable data about conservatorships while others cannot.
WHAT WE FOUND
Diane Robinson, a senior court research associate at the National Center for State Courts, said one of the most common situations for a conservatorship is when an older adult has memory problems such as dementia. She also said younger adults can be subjected to a conservatorship.
“They're usually due either to a severe mental illness, sometimes for severe substance abuse disorder. It can also be for someone who has an intellectual disability,” Robinson explained. “And the other thing that happens is sometimes as a result of traumatic brain injury. So, when younger people are in conservatorships or guardianships, it’s usually for one of those reasons.”
Conservatorships can be permanent or temporary depending on the situation. And they can be limited, which means the conservatorship focuses on specific areas where a person may have difficulty making decisions. A person that is the subject of a conservatorship can petition to end the arrangement and present their case to a judge.
There is no national database that tracks the number of conservatorships and guardianships in the United States. Naomi Cahn, professor of law at the University of Virginia, said the federal government does not mandate states to report how many conservatorships there are.
“Some states might have that information, not all states do,” Cahn said. “And you see wildly varying estimates as to just how many conservatorships there are as to how much money is being managed by conservatorships, and as to how it’s not just how often they’re entered into, but how often they are terminated. We just don’t have the data.”
The National Center for State Courts (NCSC), a nonprofit focused on improving judicial administration, said it estimated in 2016 that there were about 1.3 million adult guardianship or conservatorship cases in the U.S. that totaled at least $50 billion in assets. The group said that estimate was a projection based on data given from nearly one-third of U.S. states.
“Sixteen states provided reliable data on adult guardianship or conservatorship cases that were used to create national estimates,” the NCSC said.
Robinson said many states don’t have a statewide system for conservatorships and some of the data lives at the county level, which presents another challenge for tracking the number of conservatorships.
In a 2018 report, the NCSC said “data standards for what needs to be collected and reported often do not exist within a state.”
That same year, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging concluded in a report that, “few states are able to report accurate or detailed guardianship data, and figures related to the number of individuals subject to guardianship are largely unavailable.” One recommendation the committee made was that all states create statewide data registries.
The lack of information on the total number of conservatorships has been documented for more than a decade. A 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan congressional watchdog, found there isn’t a group that tracks how many conservatorships there are in the U.S.
“Our research did not identify any public, private, or non-governmental organization that systematically tracks the total number of guardianships or allegations of abuse, neglect, and exploitation by guardians,” the report said. “GAO previously found that many of the courts we surveyed did not track the number of guardianships that they were responsible for monitoring.”
Cahn said monitoring requirements for conservatorships vary by state. In California, an investigator will review a conservatorship a year after it begins. After that, an investigator will visit the person in the conservatorship at least once every two years.
While the total number of conservatorships in the U.S. is still only based on estimates, Robinson said states are improving how they’re collecting conservatorship information. For example, she said Pennsylanvia put into place a guardianship tracking system.
“That is an area where a lot of states are doing really good work to try to do a better job of capturing and maintaining that information,” she said.