In February 2021, The New York Times’ documentary “Framing Britney Spears” came out on FX and Hulu, and brought pop star Britney Spears back into the spotlight. The doc exposed everything from her personal relationships to misogyny in Hollywood and the media. But one aspect that captured everyone’s attention, from fans to lawmakers, was her 13-year-long conservatorship.
Since the premiere of the documentary, the 39-year-old entertainer’s case has been making headlines. And in September, a judge suspended Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, as a conservator. All of this has had some wondering what exactly is a conservatorship, and how does it work?
According to the Judicial Council of California, a conservatorship – sometimes known as a guardianship – happens when “a judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the 'conservator') to care for another adult (called the 'conservatee') who cannot care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances.”
The council says that a number of people can file for a conservatorship, including a spouse or domestic partner, family member, friend, local or state agency, or even a potential conservatee themselves. And a court can appoint a conservator of the person, of the estate, or both. Here’s what that means…
A conservator of the person ensures that the conservatee has basics like food, clothing, and shelter. This could also mean making medical decisions for the conservatee.
A conservator of the estate handles financial matters for the conservatee. Think: paying bills and overseeing their income.
Data from the Justice Dept from 2017 shows that there are about 1.3 million active guardianship or conservatorship cases in the US, with about $50 billion in conservatee assets. State laws on conservatorships vary, but experts say they’re typically a last resort and used for people who are old, ill, or infirm (think: those who are in a coma or suffer from Alzheimer’s). And that judges can take “undue influence” into account – meaning how susceptible they are to being influenced to do something that may not be in their best interest.
The world knows Britney Spears as the iconic pop star of the ‘90s and 2000s. But in the mid-2000s, she had multiple public mental health struggles that media outlets and the paparazzi harped on, from shaving her head to hitting a photographer's car with an umbrella. And in 2008, she was admitted to a psychiatric ward twice.
During the same year, Britney was put under a conservatorship thanks to her father Jamie Spears. He petitioned for a temporary conservatorship that was eventually made permanent, becoming both her personal and financial conservator. Meaning: he gained control of much of her life. News outlets have reported that Jamie has had the power to take actions like restricting Britney’s visitors, filing restraining orders on her behalf, negotiating business deals, and overseeing her medical decisions.
In 2018 alone, Britney paid $1.1 million in legal and conservator fees, with about $128,000 going to her dad for his role as a conservator. He temporarily stepped aside as Britney’s personal conservator in 2019 amid health issues, but remained involved on the financial side.
Experts say Britney’s case is unusual. Full disclosure: there are details the public doesn’t know since some court hearings and records have been sealed. But over the past 13 years, she’s continued to work and make millions of dollars, releasing four albums, holding a four-year Las Vegas residency, and briefly working as a judge for the US version of “The X Factor” – causing skepticism over whether she actually needs a conservatorship.
The arguments: According to CBS News, Jamie’s legal team has argued he’s helped her grow her estate from being in debt to more than $60 million. But her fans – some of whom launched the #FreeBritney movement that gained renewed attention because of the documentary – have protested and spoken out on social media, accusing her father of exploiting her. Unfortunately, that can happen in conservatorships.
Since 2020, Britney and her legal team have petitioned to have her father removed from his role (though a report from The New York Times says she explored having him removed as early as 2014). Britney’s attorney has said she’s “afraid” of him and that she refuses to perform until he’s removed. And at a hearing in June, Britney asked a judge to end her conservatorship. She said the “abusive” conservatorship has kept her from getting married and having more children, among other things. She said she wants her life back, and that she feels "bullied" and "alone." The judge said Spears could petition to formally end the agreement – something Spears said she didn't know about. And her father asked the court to investigate allegations of abuse Britney made during her testimony.
Here’s what’s happened since then…
June 30: A Los Angeles judge denies the pop star’s request to remove her father as co-conservator, saying that Britney remains "substantially unable" to manage her finances and "resist fraud or undue influence."
July 1: Bessemer Trust (aka the company who was slated to take over as co-conservator alongside Britney's dad) resigns, saying they were unaware that Britney wanted out of the conservatorship.
July 14: Britney wins the right to choose her own lawyer.
Aug 12: Jamie indicates in court documents that he’s willing to step down. But under certain conditions: He wants an orderly transition and wants to resolve any “outstanding matters” (including any financial accounting) for the conservatorship before stepping down.
Sept 7: Jamie files a petition to end the conservatorship. The filing says that he wants "what is best for his daughter." And that "if Ms. Spears wants to terminate the conservatorship and believes that she can handle her own life, Mr. Spears believes that she should get that chance."
Sept 29: A judge suspends Jamie from the conservatorship. And temporarily puts John Zabel – a certified public accountant – in charge of Britney’s finances. The judge says that the situation under Jamie is “untenable” and “reflects a toxic environment.” Another hearing is set for November 12 to consider terminating the conservatorship altogether.
Conservatorships are designed to help people who aren’t well enough to take care of themselves. But it can sometimes lead to cases of abuse for those whose lives are in someone else’s hands. And while we don't know everything that has gone on behind the scenes, what we have heard from Britney shows she was allegedly an example of that.
Last updated on Sept 28 – Updated to include the judge's decision to suspend Jamie as a conservator.
Last updated on Sept 7 — Updated to include Jamie Spears' petition to end Britney's conservatorship.
Skimm'd by Maria McCallen and Kamini Ramdeen
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