Britney Spears Has Wanted Out of Her Conservatorship for Years. Why Is She Still in It?

We spoke to conservatorship expert Don Slater about the latest developments in the pop star's legal case.

Jun 23 2021, 7:48pm

Since 2008, Britney Spears has existed under a conservatorship, through which other people control nearly every aspect of her life, including where she lives, what she does, and how her money is spent. Publicly, she’s said next to nothing about how she feels about the arrangement—but on Tuesday, the New York Times published a story that reveals she’s had serious problems with it for years.

According to sealed court documents obtained by the Times, Spears has repeatedly said she wants out of the conservatorship. She has reportedly told the court that at a minimum, she wants her father, Jamie Spears, removed as her conservator. (For most of the last 13 years, he’s been in control of both her finances and her day-to-day life. Two years ago, however, his role was adjusted, and he is now the co-conservator of her finances. Jodi Montgomery, a professional conservator, was appointed in his place in 2019.) Spears reportedly told a court investigator that her father has “taken advantage” of her at every turn, restricting her ability to make even the most basic decisions about her life and exploiting her for millions of dollars she’s earned as a performer.

Among a litany of other complaints detailed by the Times, Britney Spears told the court she wasn’t allowed to make friends without her father’s approval. Once, when she wanted to restain the kitchen cabinets in her home, her father allegedly refused to let her, saying it would be too expensive. She also claimed he has forced her to perform against her will, including one occasion where she had to play a show with a 104-degree fever.

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From an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to see why Spears still remains under her conservatorship now that we know she’s been unhappy with it for so long. To get a better understanding of why Spears hasn’t been able to get out of the arrangement—along with what it might take for her to ultimately escape it—I called up Don Slater, an attorney at California’s Barr & Young who specializes in conservatorship cases.

On a big picture level, what did you take away from the New York Times story?
I was disappointed and saddened. As this has gone on, I found myself really starting to hope that the conservatorship was a positive thing from Ms. Spears’ perspective, and that her problems with it were limited to whether it was her dad or someone else being her conservator. But I think that the statements in the New York Times story show that it runs much deeper than that.

Conservatorships are designed for people who can no longer manage their own lives and their own financial affairs; often, conservatees are elderly folks who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Britney Spears doesn’t even remotely fit that description. Can you speak to how unusual it is for someone of her age, and her apparent cognizance, to be in a conservatorship? 
The court very well could have found that in 2008, Ms. Spears was being tricked into giving her money away. And that could have been the grounds, or part of the grounds, for the conservatorship: being susceptible to undue influence and fraud. It's possible that someone could recognize that in themselves and decide that a conservatorship is an appropriate way to protect them from themselves. That's hard to reconcile with the New York Times article’s allegations that Ms. Spears has wanted out the whole time. If the court found that Ms. Spears was susceptible to these sorts of influences, then perhaps the court is not convinced that that underlying reason is gone yet.

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It is very unusual to see someone of Ms. Spears’ age and apparent abilities under a conservatorship. Unfortunately, to get out of the conservatorship, she would have the burden to prove she no longer needs it. And I can see that being difficult. What facts and evidence do you have to show you don't need it if you're still in it? How can you show the court that you're not going to give your money away if you don't have money to give away? It might require a lot of medical and psychological experts to pull it off. 

Jamie Spears earns $16,000 a month for serving as his daughter’s conservator, along with cuts of deals she makes that land him payouts in the multimillion range, according to the Times. Do you see Jamie Spears’ dual role—at once a conservator, but also motivated to make his daughter as profitable as possible for his own gain—as a problem?
Oftentimes, that unity of interest is a good thing: The more the conservator makes for the conservatee, the better they both are. But in Ms. Spears’ case, the way that she makes her money, it's her performances. So that creates a unique conflict of interest in this case. I would hope that the court and the parties would be more scrutinizing of the management of the conservatee’s estate and the reasons for making financial decisions. I think the court should offer Ms. Spears a greater voice in what to do with her own estate, because it's her producing the money. Usually in conservatorship cases, the income is from public benefits, retirement income, passive income—it’s usually not people who are still working.

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Spears claims she has been forced to perform, including while she was sick with a 104-degree fever. That doesn’t seem like something a conservator would legally be allowed to do.
I can't see a legal way to force someone to work. People are always allowed to refuse to work under our legal system. And when they do, maybe they've breached a contract, and they have to pay damages for refusing to work—but they still have the freedom to refuse to work. From a legal standpoint, I can't imagine [a conservator] having the legal power to do what Ms. Spears said happened. But at a human level, I can envision people feeling forced and pressured into doing things that they don't want to do.

Britney Spears reportedly said she couldn't make friends without her dad's approval. At another point, she said she wanted to restain her kitchen cabinets, but her dad wouldn’t allow her to because it was too expensive. Assuming those allegations are true, did Jamie Spears overstep the bounds of what a conservator is legally allowed to do?
The conservatorship powers are crafted by the court. Let's assume that Mr. Spears did say those things. We'd also have to assume that he said those things because the court granted him those powers. The ability to control who a conservatee sees and visits is an extra power—you have to ask for that. You have to give the court facts for that. If part of the grounds for why Ms. Spears was put into conservatorship in the first place was that she had been taken advantage of by people around her, I wouldn't be surprised for a court to make some sort of order that the conservator could control who she sees. But those things should be under constant review. Circumstances change. If the need isn't still there for this sort of control, then I would hope that requests to modify those orders have been made. 

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With regard to the cabinets, that is micromanaging. But technically, under the law, the conservator has the discretion to make a decision about every single dime spent. So if he thinks that painting the cabinets is a waste of money, that's his prerogative, unfortunately.

Britney Spears once told the court she had been “forced into a mental health facility against her will on exaggerated grounds, which she viewed as punishment for standing up for herself and making an objection during a rehearsal,” as the Times reported. How could her father be allowed to force her into a mental hospital as an act of retribution?
It is very, very difficult legally to force someone against their will into a mental hospital. The typical process in California is a 5150, where someone is a danger to themselves or others. Another legal way would be asking the court for permission to do that. And that's pretty much the peak of a conservator’s powers. You have to make quite a showing [of why that’s necessary]. There are huge due process concerns any time someone is forced to do anything against their will. 

It's possible for someone to be pressured or coerced into admitting themselves into a hospital, and you don't know what sort of things might be said to a person to [make them] admit themselves into a hospital. You can envision someone feeling like they've been pressured against their will to do something, and doing it against their will, even though they sign their name.

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Britney Spears’ court-appointed attorney has never filed a petition to terminate her conservatorship. Do you have any idea as to why he hasn’t done that—especially considering that, according to the Times, she has wanted out for years?
If we assume that Ms. Spears wants out of the conservatorship completely—which would require a petition to terminate the conservatorship—there are all sorts of non-legal reasons why one might not want to do that. It could be a very lengthy, costly, potentially humiliating trial. That might just not be worth it. That person might find themselves better off trying to make little modifications here and there, rather than having all these private details of their lives scrutinized in front of courts and lawyers and everyone else. 

It also could be strategic. The petition to terminate would likely require a trial, and the court would make a decision, and one side would win and one side would lose. It wouldn't be forever. But it sort of removes the leverage that both sides currently have. There may be negotiations happening between Ms. Spears and Mr. Spears. She may be asking for a compromise or concession, and they're considering it because of the threat that there could be a trial later. It might be that the trial isn't coming because they're still negotiating, or they're still gathering evidence, or they're just not ready. Or they just don't want to go through the trial.

It just seems like if Britney Spears has repeatedly said she wants to terminate the conservatorship, her attorney would have acted on that wish by now.
It’s not uncommon for the court to know the wishes of the conservatee long before anything is filed. The court-appointed attorney’s primary duty is to communicate what the conservatee wants. And in the background, they may be advising their client about the pros and cons, or risks and benefits, of what they want. So I can envision a court-appointed attorney constantly updating the court with what the conservatee’s wishes are. They're doing their first job, which is communicating to the court. And their second job would be to actually follow the instructions—do what their client wants them to do. It could be that Ms. Spears and her attorney are talking about the pros and cons of actually doing what it takes to end the conservatorship all the time. And it may be that the attorney doesn't have the instruction to do what it takes yet. Or maybe they have a strategic reason for waiting. It doesn't surprise me that her wishes are being expressed, but no action has been taken on it yet. That could be for many reasons, whether it's strategic, personal, private, or just simply fear of losing. 

How good of a chance do you think Britney Spears has of successfully removing her father as her conservator of her finances?
One of the issues is that the longer he is her conservator, probably, the harder it is to remove him. He’ll always rely on his track record, and argue that it has been a success. I would argue, as an attorney, that her preferences, whatever they are, should be given great weight. If it's simply that she wants a different, equally capable conservator instead of her father, there's legal support for the argument that that should carry the day.

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.

Tagged:

law, Britney Spears, Ask A Lawyer, ask an expert, Conservatorship, jamie spears

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