Long before “Leave Britney alone” became a punchline and #FreeBritney a battle cry, Britney Spears was fighting for her freedom. In a series of bombshell revelations released as part of public testimony during a June 23 court hearing, the pop superstar and early-aughts icon alleged that her father’s protracted conservatorship, under which she’s spent the past 13 years, is “abusive.”
On July 2, The New Yorker published an account of Spears’s battle, and revealed, among other new details, that she reportedly called 911 the night before the testimony to report herself as a victim of abuse of the conservatorship.
“I don’t feel like I can live a full life,” Britney told Judge Brenda Penny during the 40-minute Zoom. “I’ve been in shock. I am traumatized. You know, fake it till you make it? But now I am telling you the truth, okay, I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry it’s insane.”
Britney has fought to remove her father, James “Jamie” P. Spears, from his conservator role since as early as 2014, when court records demonstrate the singer explored ending his involvement. Both Britney and her mother, Lynne Spears, have separately alleged that Jamie has a drinking problem and a history of abuse, per the Times.
The superstar’s opposition to the conservatorship surprised few of her devoted fans, who’ve been concerned for her well-being for years, questioning how she can perform if she is supposedly unwell and scanning her social media for signs of distress. Yet the extent of the trauma Britney has endured came as a shock to many. Now, the singer waits to learn whether a normal life—outside the constant surveillance of the conservatorship—awaits her.
Conservatorships are complicated, legally and ethically. ELLE.com consulted several legal experts to get a thorough breakdown of what’s typical and what’s unusual about Spears’s arrangement, as well as how the star might someday regain her power. Below, everything we know about the legal battle—and where it could go from here.
Is Britney Spears’s conservatorship legal?
Technically, yes. A conservatorship is a legal arrangement in which a judge grants a guardian (or several guardians) control over a person’s finances or their overall “person,” i.e. their daily life, financial, and health decisions, should that person be deemed unable to manage them.
In Britney’s case, her conservatorship began after she was put on an involuntary psychiatric hold in February 2008, following a public meltdown, allegations of substance abuse, and a dramatic custody battle with ex-husband Kevin Federline. Her father, Jamie Spears, and attorney Andrew Wallet were named conservators of Britney’s “person,” as she was deemed mentally and physically unfit to care for herself.
The arrangement was meant to be temporary, but was later made long-term in October 2008. Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Riva Goetz granted Jamie and Wallet the request, citing that, “The conservatorship is necessary and appropriate for the complexity of financial and business entities and her [Britney] being susceptible to undue influence.”
Is Britney’s conservatorship normal?
Traditionally, there are two types of probate conservatorships, explains Jan Costello, a law professor and mental health law specialist at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles: short-term arrangements for those with a temporary disability (such as an extreme sickness or a coma) and long-term arrangements for those with an unchanging or worsening condition, such as Alzheimer’s or severe mental illness.
“What’s very unusual about Britney Spears’s situation is that she doesn’t really fall into either of those categories,” Costello says. “She’s not someone who is not functioning and getting worse and getting worse, or who started out with an incompetence and is always going to be that way.” Furthermore, she’s a high-profile pop star with a significant number of assets, which Costello says is not necessarily typical of the average conservatee.
A person with that level of financial power could, hypothetically, need a conservator if people are “trying to get her money without her being able to protect herself,” explains Elyn Saks, a law professor at USC Gould School of Law. This is certainly an argument Jamie and Wallet made to get rights over Britney’s finances in the first place. But Saks stresses, “It is unusual for someone to have so many resources and still to need a conservator.”
Is Britney’s conservatorship a miscarriage of justice?
Some legal experts think it’s possible, if not likely. Says Georgetown University law professor Lawrence Gostin, the facts of the Spears case point to an abusive system, one that used the pop singer’s previous meltdowns as justification for continued surveillance–and control. Britney has demonstrated publicly that she’s not totally incompetent, Gostin argues, and it doesn’t appear her father’s decisions are for the benefit of her mental health—which is meant to be the point of a conservatorship in the first place.
“In short, I think that case illustrates an abusive system aided and abetted by the law,” Gostin, who directs the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, wrote in an email. “It is highly unjust to subject Ms. Spears to such a total conservatorship, especially when a person she does not trust is running it. The courts should right this wrong.”
Adds Saks, a “smart and a good conservatorship” would lay out what Britney does and does not need protection from, rather than wholesale stripping her of all choice in her everyday life and finances.
How can the singer get out of the arrangement?
There’s no such thing as a “permanent’ conservatorship; every year, the conservator must prove to a court that the arrangement is still necessary in order to renew its status.
“Precisely because there is such a loss of liberty and decision-making power, it isn’t as if once you’re under a conservatorship, you’re always under a conservatorship,” Costello says.
In order to have her rights returned to her, Britney would need to prove to the court that she has the “capacity” to handle her own life, health and financial choices. This would include filing a petition through her court-appointed attorney, Sam Ingham, in order to terminate the conservatorship. In this petition, she would offer background information and evidence for how she has benefitted, what has changed in her life since the arrangement was first reached, and why it is no longer needed.
Spears has expressed a desire to terminate the conservatorship without a mental health evaluation. Does she need to be evaluated in order to exit the arrangement?
It seems extremely unlikely that Britney would be able to get out of the conservatorship without an evaluation. As Saks explains, “The court can’t just decide on its own that she’s fine and doesn’t need it. And she can’t just allege that she’s fine and doesn’t need it. There’s got to be some kind of process where she’s formally evaluated and a decision or recommendations are made.“
Costello says she was disheartened when she read that Britney no longer wished to be evaluated—not because she doesn’t understand the singer’s wish, but because that desire works against her in the long-term.
“I can see where she thinks, ‘Okay, the results of that evaluation may be negative, may be harmful to me,’” Costello says. “But the only way to combat that is to ask the court to appoint an independent evaluator to evaluate her. Or she can retain a private person to evaluate her, but it sounds like she’s not able to do that because she doesn’t have control of her money.”
Ideally, Costello says, Britney would ask the court to appoint one or more mental health professionals to do an evaluation of her, specifically on the issue of her competency or “capacity.” From there, it’s likely they’d either find her competent or determine that, on a trial basis, she could have some decision-making power returned to her.
“Otherwise it’s kind of a Catch-22 situation,” Costello says. “If the people who were around her and were hired by the conservator are making all the decisions for her, then she can’t demonstrate that now she’s capable of making those decisions for herself.”
Is it legal to force a conservatee to consume medication and undergo mental health treatment?
Yes. Requiring a conservatee to undergo treatments they perhaps don’t want to do is relatively normal, Saks says, given that conservatees are usually deemed unfit to care for themselves.
Costello offers the example of a patient with dementia who wants to reject medical care designed to give them higher quality of life. In this situation, the conservator would have the right to tell the doctor to treat the patient anyway.
But the ethics of this forced care are knotty. “That is a very controversial area because, in a case like, say, someone with a severe intellectual impairment or someone who’s deteriorating in their dementia, arguably it’s not consistent with respecting that person’s dignity to force them to undergo something unpleasant that they don’t understand the reason for,” Costello says.
In the case of Britney, Costello says she and her conservator could go to the court and hash out that the treatment is for her health, but she doesn’t want it and her quality of life is adversely affected because of it. If the court finds that the risks of the treatment outweigh the benefits, then the ruling could fall in favor of her refusing treatment.
Can the conservator dictate whom Britney marries?
Jamie and his team can’t dictate whom his daughter marries, but rather can prevent her from marrying at all, given that the conservatorship prevents her from entering into contracts. Britney has expressed a desire to marry boyfriend Sam Asghari, which serves as further impetus to remove herself from the legal arrangement. “I want to get married and have a baby. I was told right now in the conservatorship that I’m not able to get married or have a baby,” she told the judge on June 23.
Can the conservatorship force contraception upon Britney?
Britney alleged during the June 23 court hearing that she was forced to get an IUD in order to prevent her from having more children, despite her desire to do so. “I have an [IUD] inside my body right now, but I wanna get pregnant. I want it taken out so I can start trying to have another baby. But this so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out because they don’t want me to have any more children,” she testified.
Family law attorney David A. Esquibias, who represents celebrity Amanda Bynes, told People that, “As invasive as it sounds, a conservatee can be told you have to be on birth control. The idea is to protect the conservatee because the conservatee is unable to care for herself while pregnant or during childbirth.”
But according to experts in trust and estate law consulted by the New York Times, when a conservator has asked a court to order contraception, it has usually involved conservatees who were severely disabled children—not a high-functioning adult pop star.
Is Jamie’s involvement as conservator a conflict of interest, given that he profits off of his daughter’s work in the music industry?
It’s typical for a conservator to be a family member, and in fact such an arrangement is often encouraged, says Costello. The issue comes into play if Jamie is mishandling Britney’s finances—as her conservator, he is obligated to make all financial decisions based on what is best for his daughter and her assets. If he is paying himself extra money for his own benefit or making contracts for her performances “that were not in her financial interest, that could be a conflict of interest,” Costello says.
The latter is a strong possibility, given that Britney has shared testimony about several occasions during which she was forced to perform or rehearse when she was feeling either ill or incapable.
“I was on tour in 2018 that I was forced to do. My management said that if I don’t do this tour I will have to find an attorney and, by contract, my own management could sue me if I didn’t follow through with the tour,” Britney told the court, later adding, “When I said no to one dance move and to rehearsals, it was as if I planted a huge bomb somewhere.”
Is it normal for Britney to be paying for both sides of the case—her own lawyers and her father’s?
Because a conservatorship in the probate court is meant for the benefit of the conservatee, it is common for the conservatee to handle the financial burden of both their own representation and the representation of the conservator. “Frequently the family member [serving as conservator] does not get paid,” Costello says. But for anything that the conservator authorizes—healthcare treatments, psychiatric evaluations, etc., it comes out of the resources of the conservatee.
As the New York Times reported on June 22, that means Spears is responsible for paying extensive legal fees, including a recent $890,000 bill from one set of Jamie’s lawyers, some of which went toward “media strategizing for defending the conservatorship.”
Did Britney’s court-appointed lawyer violate ethics if he failed to inform Britney of her right to petition?
In her testimony before a judge on June 23, Britney claimed that she “didn’t know I could petition the conservatorship to be ended. I’m sorry for my ignorance, but I honestly didn’t know that.” Regarding her desire to do a press interview about how she’s been treated, she added, “My attorney says I can’t—it’s not good, I can’t let the public know anything they did to me. He told me I should keep it to myself, really.”
We don’t know what Ingham, Britney’s long-term court-appointed attorney, told her, but if it’s true that she was never informed of her right to petition the court, that could signal an ethical concern, as the New York Times has reported.
“It’s certainly troubling that this has gone on for so long if she has wanted to end it,” Cardozo School of Law professor Rebekah Diller told the Times. “It’s hard to know exactly what’s gone on behind closed doors, but in general one would hope she has been told that throughout the years, because it’s a critical right she was entitled to.”
The attorney’s obligation is to the client and only the client, regardless of who is paying for the services or who wants the conservatorship continued, Costello explains. That said, court-appointed attorneys are also officers of the court, and if the court asks an attorney directly for their suggestion re: a client, they’re allowed to make recommendations—so long as they are in the client’s best interest. It’s possible Ingham felt he was acting in Britney’s best interest by recommending she not let the public know of her frustration with the conservatorship.
Saks says this is an incredibly sticky area, as many people with disabilities or mental health issues struggle to feel heard in a legal setting. “I, myself, have schizophrenia, and I’ve been hospitalized and had rights taken away and that kind of thing,” she says. “And it’s hard, it’s traumatic, but sometimes it’s necessary. If I were to say, “I would love to take this medication. It’s helped me in the past, but a voice is telling me it’s going to cause a nuclear explosion,’ I don’t think I have capacity to decide, so a benign other should decide for me.”
What’s next for the case? How soon could Britney get out of the conservatorship?
In the coming weeks, the court will work with everyone involved in the legal battle to set another meeting date. That could take months, but with the level of public scrutiny following this case, it’s likely the process will speed along faster. If Britney were to work with Ingham to officially petition for termination, she would then need to be evaluated before a judge could make a final decision. The judge could also rule in favor of granting her a replacement conservator or allowing her more autonomy within a limited conservatorship.
Legal experts believe there’s reason to believe Britney would ultimately win her freedom. “If the case were to be reviewed by appellate courts,” Gostin wrote in an email, “I believe they should find the lack of due process a constitutional flaw and should overturn the conservatorship.”
Added Saks, “I think it’s a really difficult, hard issue, and we want to do right by people and get them care. And we also want to do right by people in giving them the ability to exercise choice as much as they can.”
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