When Britney Spears, who turns 40 this year, speaks to a Los Angeles judge at her own request on Wednesday, she’ll do it 13 years into a court-enforced conservatorship that has exercised vast control of her life and money. But what is a conservatorship, exactly?
Here’s a look at how conservatorships operate, what’s unusual about hers, and why the cry to #FreeBritney keeps getting louder.
HOW DO CONSERVATORSHIPS WORK?
When a person is considered to have a severely diminished mental capacity, a court can step in and grant someone the power to make financial decisions and major life choices for them.
California law says a conservatorship, called a guardianship in some states, is justified for a “person who is unable to provide properly for his or her personal needs for physical health, food, clothing, or shelter,” or for someone who is “substantially unable to manage his or her own financial resources or resist fraud or undue influence.”
The conservator, as the appointee put in charge is called, may be a family member, a close friend or a court-appointed professional.
HOW DOES SPEARS’ WORK?
With a fortune of more than $50 million comes secrecy, and the court closely guards the inner workings of Spears’ conservatorship.
Some aspects have been revealed in documents. The conservatorship has the power to restrict her visitors. It arranges and oversees visits with her sons, ages 14 and 15; father Kevin Federline has full custody. It has the power to take out restraining orders in her name, which it has used more than once to keep away interlopers deemed shady. It has the power to make her medical decisions and her business deals.
Legally, Spears can get married, but the conservatorship must approve it as with other major life decisions. Like all California conservatorships, it’s subject to annual accountings and reviews from a court investigator.
WHO HAS POWER OVER SPEARS?
Her father has largely been in charge through the years, and the stereotypical image of a parent preying on a famous child’s fortune fuels the enmity against James Spears and the conservatorship, though his every move is scrutinized by the court.
From 2008 until 2019, he had power over her life choices, and he and attorney Andrew Wallet controlled her money. Now, he has financial control only, and must share that role with the Bessemer Trust, an estate-management firm. Jodi Montgomery, a court-appointed professional, now acts as conservator over her personal matters.
WHY ARE SO MANY CALLING TO #FREEBRITNEY?
Fans who dote on Britney Spears’ social media posts and public statements, trying to decipher her every utterance, dance move or shared meme, have increasingly coalesced into a movement after becoming convinced she was being controlled unfairly. Key were two women who in 2017 turned their hobby of picking apart Spears’ Instagram posts into a podcast, “ Britney’s ‘Gram.” It would help birth the hashtag #FreeBritney.
Now, even minor hearings can bring dozens of protesters to the courthouse, carrying signs like “CONSERVATORSHIP IS SLAVERY” and “THIS IS TOXIC.” Many say they relate to her struggles with mental health and the system. The movement, or at least its sentiments, has attracted her fellow celebrities, including Bette Midler, Miley Cyrus, Paris Hilton and Pitbull.
James Spears has called the group conspiracy theorists, and says those who shout #FreeBritney don’t understand the totality of the situation.
WHY WAS IT IMPOSED IN THE FIRST PLACE?
In 2007 and 2008, shortly after she became a mother, she began to have very public mental struggles, with media outlets obsessed over each moment. Hordes of paparazzi aggressively followed her every time she left her house, and she no longer seemed able to handle it.
She attacked one cameraman’s car with an umbrella. She shaved her head at a salon. She lost custody of her children. When she refused to turn over her boys after a visit, she was hospitalized and put on a psychiatric hold. The conservatorship was put in place within days.
WHY HAS IT GONE ON SO LONG?
A conservatorship can always be dissolved by the court, though it’s rare that a person successfully asks to be released. The burden is on them to prove their competence. Conservatorships can last decades, because few of the circumstances that lead to them are temporary. The mandatory secrecy of medical records has kept murky the reasons why Britney Spears must remain in hers, but it’s clear that it involves psychiatric issues. A recent filing said that she wasn’t capable of giving consent for medical treatment.
Even with required secrecy, it’s usually no mystery why someone must stay in a conservatorship, says Sarah Wentz, an attorney who specializes in estates. “Courts don’t just impose these on people,” she says. They’re most commonly in situations with something dramatic like a traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s or dementia.”
Spears’ father and his attorneys have emphasized that she is especially susceptible to people who seek to take advantage of her money and fame. All sides agree, at least in theory, that she should be able to make her own choices if she becomes able. “The threshold is not, ‘Do I make dumb decisions?’ because we’re entitled in our life to make dumb decisions,” Wentz says. “Think of how many intelligent women make bad choices. You can fall in love with somebody and give them every penny you have.”
HOW DOES SPEARS FEEL ABOUT ALL OF THIS?
Britney Spears has never asked the court to end the conservatorship. And in a recent court filing she said it “rescued her from a collapse, exploitation by predatory individuals and financial ruin” and made her “able to regain her position as a world class entertainer.”
But she has sought more say in who runs it, has emphasized that she reserves the right to seek to end it at any time and has welcomed the scrutiny of #FreeBritney fans. She’s been clear in saying she wants her father out entirely. Her lawyer said at a recent hearing that she fears him and will not end her lengthy career pause as long as he maintains control.