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Bill to reform California probate system headed to governor’s desk

A landmark reform of California’s flawed probate system, spotlighted by the troubled Britney Spears case, is headed to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

The legislation, Assembly Bill 1663, sailed unanimously through both houses of the state Legislature this week, promising relief to the elderly and disabled trapped in never-ending and potentially exploitive conservatorships. Newsom has until Sept. 30 to make a decision.

Conservatorship is a tool in probate court by which professionals appointed by a judge can decide, among other things, where people live, how their money is spent and even who they can talk to. Some activists argue that state prisoners have more civil rights than someone under a conservatorship.

Sponsored by Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, D-San Diego, the bill makes it more difficult to establish a conservatorship, easier to get out of one and promotes alternatives to court. It also codifies the use of supported decision-making, which basically is seeking informal help in making decisions rather than jumping to conservatorships.

“It’s a landmark concept,” said Maienschein, whose bill received little if any opposition. “We really had to educate people. (Conservatorship) is complicated.”

Judy Mark, president of the statewide group Disability Voices United, called the bill “a game-changer.”

Mark said there is a belief among judges, fiduciaries and lawyers that conservatorships are among the only options for the elderly and disabled who need help making decisions, creating a pipeline to probate court.

“What (the bill) is doing is putting a giant plug in that pipeline,” she said.

When used properly, probate can be a way to protect the elderly and disabled from physical and financial bullying by family, friends and associates. But the process also can open the door for predatory professionals to exploit their clients, eating through their life savings and assets and walling them off from family.

In Santa Ana, for example, court-appointed conservators drained a retired judge’s savings and then forced her into a jumbo reverse mortgage on her $1.8 million house in Newport Beach to keep the money flowing.

Also in Santa Ana, a conservator sold part of his client’s real estate to the owner of a land brokerage where the conservator worked. The conservator then tried to collect a $9,800 commission on the sale.

And then there is the Spears case, where her right to make decisions was taken away and given to her father — sparking a nearly 13-year battle that ended in 2021 when her conservatorship was finally ended.

Maienschein said he witnessed abuses in the system while serving as a law clerk for a probate judge.

“It was personal for me,” he said. “I was young and working in conservatorship court. It left a big impression on me.”

Maienschein added that his bill, in essence, will educate people on their rights before and during probate proceedings, making it easier to modify or exit a conservatorship.

His bill also would promote “supported decision making,” helping disabled or elderly people avoid conservatorships altogether. Under Maeinschein’s proposal, conservatorship would be a last resort.

Mark, of Disability Voices United, explained that supported decision making is basically seeking help in making choices, perhaps from a trusted friend or family member.

“The courts are not involved, you don’t have to pay for a lawyer … and you do it informally,” she said. “It’s an empowerment tool as opposed to conservatorship, which is about disempowerment.”

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