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Britney Spears and Brooke Astor: A Cautionary Tale of Two Grande Dames

The 20th century produced two icons who share a fascinating common link. Britney Spears, born in 1981, has been a popular music superstar. Meanwhile, Brooke Astor, born in 1902, was at the top of New York City social circles. While Brooke Astor passed away back in 2007, her story has similarities to the recent Britney Spears family drama.

If you’ve been watching the Britney Spears saga unfold, you may now be familiar with the term “conservatorship”. This means that her and her estate have been under the direct control of another person. In this case that person was her father.

What is a Conservatorship?

Conservatorship is a legal concept, and in plain English, it means that a court has appointed a “trusted person” to be responsible for another person’s life and financial affairs. It is like a General Durable Power of Attorney. The only difference is who does the appointing. A conservatorship is appointed by a judge, whereas in a General Durable Power of Attorney the individual themselves appoints someone to act on their behalf (in the event he or she is incapacitated.)

Brooke Astor & Brittney Spears

I first heard the story of Brooke Astor many years ago. Her life is well documented in Wikipedia and in numerous New York Times articles, as well as in other newspapers and media stories. In summary, she had been left a fortune by her 3rd husband, Vincent Astor. He was the great-great grandson of America’s first multi-millionaire, John Jacob Astor. She was well known for not only being incredibly rich, but also generous, outspoken, and well connected. She lived a vivacious and happy life well into her 80s. During that time, she had given her son, Anthony Marshall, her General Durable Power of Attorney (POA). Eventually, he not only controlled her finances, but also had control over her care givers and living arrangements.

Fast forward a few decades, and we now have a similar story. However, this is not an elderly person. Surprisingly, this is a young (40 years old) entertainment phenomenon. Britney Spears has been in the headlines recently for legal battles with her father. He became her sole conservator in 2019. She has been fighting to have a new person appointed and has accused her father of abuse of power. Without admitting to any wrongdoing, her father agreed to step down last week at the request of a Judge.

These real-life stories are important not only for the individual needing help, but also for the conservator or POA. In Brooke Astor’s case, it was her grandson, Philip Marshall, that blew the whistle on his own father, Anthony Marshall. Anthony Marshall was arrested and found guilty of numerous charges. He ultimately died in prison.

The Britney Spears’ case is not that clear cut. In fact, her father may have truly been acting in her best interest. Unlike the details of the Brooke Astor case, the Spears case is very different. Her father has been able to produce tangible evidence of the issues and has defended many of his decisions. However, it has become a “he said/she said” melodrama.

There is a classic formula, which is often cited in stories of elder and conservator abuse: Isolate, medicate, and steal the estate. Even though Anthony Marshall was not found guilty of the specific charge of Elder Abuse, the details of the final years of Brooke Astor appear to follow this formula. Eerily, in accounts provided by Britney Spears of her circumstances, they too appear to follow the formula—Isolate, medicate, steal the estate. (Of course, her father gives a very different version, which is why this case is so controversial and interesting to follow.)

Moral of the Story

Moral of the story: If you find yourself in a position where you must become a conservator or you have been named as the person with the Power of Attorney, be aware that every decision you make may be scrutinized. On the other hand, if you eventually need a conservator or someone to step in as your Power of Attorney, name someone you’re confident will place your interests first and they aren’t motivated to steal your estate!

As Investment Advisors, we have now been given not only the duty, but also the obligation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to take specific action steps if we suspect Elder Abuse or have other concerns with our elderly or incapacitated clients. We would like to think it would never happen to our clients, but the stories of Brooke Astor and Britney Spears are stark reminders that this can and does happen.

Kristine Bolhouse, CPA/PFS, CFP®

Vice President/Shareholder

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