After spending 13 years under a conservatorship, Britney Spears broke her silence on the highly restrictive legal arrangement on Wednesday. To say she wants out would be an understatement: In a searing, 23-minute speech she read in court, she told Judge Brenda Penny she has been “traumatized” by the system that has so tightly controlled her life since 2008, and demanded she be released from it immediately.
“I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry it’s insane. And I’m depressed. I cry every day,” Spears said in court. “I’m done. All I want is to own my money, for this to end, and my boyfriend to drive me in his fucking car.”
Spears spoke of being forced to perform against her will, and punished when she objected; of being forced to attend therapy multiple times a week, without the ability to choose her own therapist; and of being prohibited from having her IUD removed, among a long list of other alleged abuses. She’s had to shoulder the cost of everything she claims her conservators have made her do, along with attorneys’ fees for her father, Jamie Spears, who currently controls her $60 million fortune in partnership with a wealth management firm. Up until 2019, he had also controlled the everyday details of her life, though a professional conservator, Jodi Montgomery, has since assumed that role.
“It’s my wish and my dream for all of this to end,” Spears told the court. “I just want my life back.”
Unfortunately for Spears, it may be difficult for her to get out of her conservatorship as quickly as she hopes. To understand exactly what needs to happen for Spears to reclaim her independence—and how long that might take—I spoke to California attorney Scott Rahn, the founder and managing partner of the law firm RMO and an expert in conservatorship cases. He walked me through Spears’ path out of her conservatorship step by step.
VICE: What’s the first thing Britney Spears has to do to terminate her conservatorship?
Scott Rahn: If she wants her own attorney, you file a petition with the court essentially giving her the authority to do that. She would probably want to do that in advance of filing the termination petition. You're going to want that attorney to work with you, as opposed to starting the termination petition, bringing in another lawyer, having them get up to speed, and then having to work off of something that they didn't help prepare.
How soon could Britney file the petition to hire her own attorney, and how soon could she actually secure one?
She could file it tomorrow. And we could have that determined sometime in the next three to six months.
So step one: She hires her own attorney, if she so chooses. What happens next?
She would file a petition to terminate the conservatorship. I'm assuming her dad, her mom—these other interested people—would chime in, and basically advise the court as to why they think it should not be terminated. It's not as simple as you file the petition, the other parties respond, and the court decides it. It would be set for an evidentiary hearing, which is essentially a trial. And during that interim phase, after everybody's put their opinions in, then they go into discovery.
People are going to ask for documents. People are going to be deposed: Doctors are going to be deposed, business managers, whoever else is surrounding Britney, probably including Britney herself. [Both sides will] put together the evidence that's going to be presented to the judge in asking to terminate the conservatorship or not. It’s a long, long process. In any given probate case, you're looking at six, nine, 12 months for discovery. With a case of this size and this magnitude, you have to assume it's at least a year for discovery.
Once the evidentiary hearing occurs, what happens from there?
The court could terminate. Depending on what Britney asks for, the court could modify the conservatorship, and remove some of the restrictions, potentially. Or the court could just maintain the status quo. It's a long, emotionally difficult, financially straining process that very likely would take a couple years.
What happens if Jamie Spears, and all of Britney’s other conservators, don’t oppose her petition to terminate the conservatorship?
That seems highly unlikely. But it's possible. If it's unopposed, she and her lawyer are [still] going to want to put together their best case to say, “These are the reasons why it should terminate.” And if that's unopposed, then the court certainly would be well within its right to terminate.
Britney told the court she wants to end her conservatorship “without having to be evaluated.” Would it be at all possible for that to happen?
Under the circumstances that you just proposed, where she files her petition and it's unopposed, potentially. But otherwise, I think no. That's just not the way these things work. If you want to terminate the conservatorship, you need to demonstrate to the court, essentially, that the conservatorship is no longer necessary.
On Wednesday, Britney said that in the past, other conservatees have been able to end their conservatorships without being evaluated. To your knowledge, is that something that's happened before?
I can imagine a situation where that could happen. Let’s say dad had a stroke in 2015. He's gone through three years of treatment. He's regained his speech, he's regained his fine motor skills. You put that all in your petition, and you file it. Your family loves and supports you and is like, “You're good, dad. Congratulations.” And the court can look at that and say, “Mr. Jones, congratulations on your recovery. I'm happy to terminate your conservatorship.” That can happen in those circumstances. I don't think we're dealing with those circumstances here.
If Jamie Spears—or any other conservator—does, in fact, oppose Britney’s petition to terminate the conservatorship, what evidence might they use to try to keep it in place?
Most likely, what we would see are statements from her medical care team talking about whatever the issues are that they believe require the conservatorship. That's really the evidence that you need, because frankly, she hasn't been managing her financial affairs. If you had someone who had control over a bank account, for example, and they had wild spending, you would roll in the financial account statements to show just how irresponsible they were, and how they're being taken advantage of, how grifters were defrauding them and things like that. But in this case, it's largely built on her capacity and her mental stability. So I would imagine what you would see is a truckload of documents, and either depositions or declarations from medical professionals talking about why this is still the best thing for her.
What could Jamie and the other conservators do to drag this process out, if they wanted to?
Causing discovery delays, not producing documents, forcing everything through the court-motion process where everything then needs a hearing. That one-year timeframe we talked about [for discovery] becomes a two-year timeframe, maybe a two-and-a-half year timeframe, just because of the procedures that are involved. You could certainly see that happening. But you've got a very, very experienced judge here, who knows this case cold, knows its history, and I think does a really good job of running her docket. We don't [deliberately slow a case’s progress] at our firm, but we certainly run into firms who employ that as a tactic. And it's pretty transparent when it's happening. The lawyers on all sides here are all-stars, frankly. So I doubt those shenanigans would be tolerated by either the lawyers or the court.
Could Judge Penny expedite this process in any way?
A judge always has control over their docket. They can set a scheduling order, and they can make it as brief or as lengthy as they want so that things move along a certain calendar. But she can't restrict the parties from responding or objecting. So she can basically set up a timeline by which she wants this all done. And we've seen that in other cases, with this judge and with other judges, where they say, “Look, if this is what we're going to do, this is how we're going to do it. This is the timeline within which we're going to do it and don't come asking me to change it.” But again, the genesis of all of this is Britney, through her lawyer, filing that petition to terminate.
How long do you think it could take for Britney to get out of her conservatorship in both scenarios we’ve discussed: Firstly, if her petition to terminate goes unopposed; and secondly, if that petition is opposed?
Unopposed, at a maximum, six months. If it's truly unopposed, there isn't any reason why it would go beyond three months, frankly. Opposed? I don't think we're going to have anything until 2023. A case as significant as this, with the resources that are available, you could see this case dragging on for years. Years and years and years.
It could go to an evidentiary hearing in three years. Say we're in 2024. There's a trial, there's an order, somebody wins, somebody loses—somebody appeals it. That appeal takes a year, roughly. And then the trial basically restarts if somebody wins the appeal. And then you have another trial, and then that's appealed. Potentially, you could be talking decades. There's a lot riding on this.
There's a previously scheduled court hearing set for July 14. Do you think that will be the next hearing that will take place in this case, or do you think it could happen sooner?
Anything is possible in litigation. Anybody could go in on an emergency basis and ask for relief. It doesn't mean it's going to be granted. But you could certainly end up back in court before [July 14].
How much weight do you think Judge Penny gives to Britney’s desire to end this conservatorship, and the statement she made yesterday?
Judge Penny is a very, very well-respected, very experienced probate practitioner. She practiced in this area before she became a commissioner, before she became a judge, before she became the co-presiding judge of probate. She knows what she's doing. And she works really hard to get it right. I think she has a lot of empathy, especially in these conservatorship cases. Britney coming into the hearing and making her feelings known, I think she takes that into consideration and gives it a lot of weight. But procedurally, Britney, through her attorney, needs to file that petition to put [terminating her conservatorship] in front of the court, so that the judge can make that decision.
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