A Los Angeles Times investigation in 2005 exposed deep flaws in California’s probate conservatorship system, which is meant to protect adults who cannot adequately see to their own needs or manage their money because of a disability, such as dementia or traumatic brain injury.
The “Guardians for profit” series outlined horrendous abuses by court-appointed professional conservators who used their considerable powers to mismanage the lives of some of the state’s most vulnerable people. Some of the cases were the stuff of nightmares, as unscrupulous and poorly supervised conservators took over bank accounts, blocked people from spending their own money on their comfort and safety, removed people from their homes, and got rich in the process. Other failures were more mundane but revealed a system in which overworked probate judges relied too much on the judgments and recommendations of professional conservators, to the detriment of the people they were supposedly protecting.
A probate conservatorship begins when a family member, or sometimes a public agency or other interested party, files court papers that claim a disabled adult cannot, or should not, make fundamental decisions about how to live his or her life. After a hearing, which often does not include the disabled person, the court generally appoints a conservator to take over decision-making. Conservators can dictate how a person spends money, where to live, even whether to date, marry or have sex.
Probate conservatorships are generally indefinite and are subject to only cursory review in the following years. In that way they are different from temporary mental health holds and conservatorships under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act for people who are so “gravely disabled” they cannot feed, clothe or shelter themselves; those conservatorships expire automatically after a year.
There currently are thousands of conservatorships in California. How many thousands is a mystery, since the state relies on reports from each of the 58 superior courts. Many courts don’t file their reports.
The laws on the books permit a person under a conservatorship in California to ask a court to review and reconsider the oversight and to seek a different conservator. But they often are unaware of these rights, in part because the conservator can control what they read or hear, and with whom they speak or visit.
Former Assemblyman Dave Jones (later the state insurance commissioner) responded to The Times series with a bill intended to repair the system. It passed and was signed into law — but many of the reforms required investment in court oversight and were never put in place amid the Great Recession and the state’s dire financial condition. Little changed, and for nearly 17 years, the urgent need to fix the conservatorship system was forgotten.
In 2019, a reminder came from an unexpected source. The #FreeBritney movement rallied around pop star Britney Spears, who was the subject of a conservatorship that began in 2008 and ended in November 2021. Members of the movement became experts in California conservatorships, and reignited public interest in the broken system.
A reform bill was signed into law last year, but it, too, remains partly unfunded.
Now lawmakers are considering a bill to complete the work and, importantly, provide less-restrictive alternatives to court-ordered conservatorships, allowing disabled adults to retain as much control over their lives as they want and can exercise, with assistance.
Assembly Bill 1663 would create a program of “supported decision-making,” in which an adult can select a person to provide assistance in making choices that otherwise would be up to a court appointee, and so retain the fullest practical measure of self-determination.
Supported decision-making is based on the conviction that as long as an adult is able to communicate his or her choices, those choices should be honored. They should be able to select their own advisors and experts.
They also should be informed of those rights — as should the judges and state agencies that are part of the traditional conservatorship process. To that end, the bill allocates a one-time $10-million appropriation to provide education and technical assistance to courts, as well as to people who might otherwise be conserved, and their families.
Lawmakers should move AB 1663 forward. Improvements and alternatives to the state’s conservatorship process have been far too slow in coming. Further delays would inflict unnecessary damage on thousands of Californians.