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Landmark bill to reform state conservatorship system signed into law by Gov. Newsom

Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a landmark probate reform bill that will make it more difficult to place someone into a court-ordered conservatorship, such as the arrangement that for years prevented Britney Spears from making her own decisions.

Under AB 1663, passed unanimously by both houses of the state Legislature, conservatorships would be a last resort for disabled and elderly people, taking a back seat to “supported decision-making,” that is, helping them to make their own choices. The law becomes effective Jan. 1.

“This is a huge advancement in civil rights for people with disabilities in California,” said Judy Mark, president of the statewide group Disability Voices United. Mark called the new statute the most important probate reform bill in the nation.

“This is a huge step forward. Now the work begins to get the word out,” she said.

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.

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 loved ones.

In a prepared statement, Newsom said the new measure “is an important step to empower Californians with disabilities to get needed support in caring for themselves and their finances, while maintaining control over their lives to the greatest extent possible.”

Simply put, the bill by Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, D-San Diego, makes it more difficult to establish a conservatorship, easier to get out of one and promotes alternatives to court interference. It also codifies the use of supported decision-making.

People with intellectual, developmental or other disabilities can now consult informally with supportive individuals without fear of being forced into a conservatorship.

Supporters call supported decision-making an empowerment tool as opposed to conservatorships, which they label as disempowerment. Under supported decision-making, lawyers and judges are not involved, only trusted individuals.

“Everyone deserves to have control over the choices they make in their daily lives, including individuals with disabilities,” Maienschein said in a prepared statement.

Abuses in the probate system were highlighted by the Spears case, in which the pop icon’s 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 dissolved in court.

Maienschein has said he was inspired to author the reform bill by the abuses he saw working as a law clerk for a probate judge.

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