ACLU Client Released from Conservatorship, One of the First Under California’s New Law

June 15, 2023 1:30 pm

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SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — A probate judge in Santa Cruz County has terminated the conservatorship of Marie Bergum, a California woman with an intellectual disability. Bergum, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as private attorneys Jonathan Martinis and Lisa Hutar, is one of the first to be released from conservatorship following the passage of a new California law that reforms how courts impose, review, and terminate probate conservatorships.

“I am so glad that I found supporters and lawyers who helped me end my conservatorship. It feels good to have someone believe in me,” said Marie Bergum. “With supported decision-making, I get help from people I trust to make my own choices. I want people to understand that conservatorship is not the only way, and that people with disabilities can make choices and learn and live their own lives.”

In September 2022, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law the Probate Conservatorship Reform and Supported Decision-Making Act, A.B. 1663, which requires courts to consider less restrictive alternatives to conservatorship like supported decision-making, makes it easier to terminate a conservatorship, and requires courts to inform people subject to conservatorship of the rights they retain. The law recognizes supported decision-making in law for the first time in California. It is the culmination of years of advocacy by disability rights organizations, and comes after Britney Spears’ conservatorship case brought the issue to the national spotlight.

“Marie wants to live life on her own terms, just like hundreds of thousands of other disabled people whose civil liberties are curbed due to restrictive conservatorships and guardianships,” said Zoe Brennan-Krohn, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program. “For too long, conservatorships have been too easy to establish and too hard to terminate. Marie is using supported decision-making to direct her own life with supports. It is wonderful that California’s new law, and the judge in Marie’s case, recognize that supported decision-making is a valid practice that can be used instead of conservatorship.”

Marie Bergum has been fighting to end her conservatorship (known as a guardianship in some states) since 2011, when she sent a handwritten letter asking a court to end the guardianship controlled by her father. She is enrolled in an independent living program, which helps her learn skills to live on her own. She remains a steadfast advocate for people with disabilities, and worked to pass the law she used to terminate her own conservatorship.

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