For years, only a small, passionate faction of Britney Spears fans kept tabs on the details of her conservatorship—but after the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears put her legal situation under a microscope, it’s attracted intense public scrutiny. The “Free Britney” movement has long seemed like a fringe group fighting a questionable battle. But when you unpack exactly what a conservatorship is, and how severely it limits Spears' freedom, it’s easy to see why they're so outraged.
Conservatorships are designed for people who are medically incapable of taking care of themselves and their finances. A vast majority of conservatees are seniors; typically, they have a condition like Alzheimer's or dementia that leaves them unable to manage their own lives, at risk of putting themselves in danger, and vulnerable to being swindled out of their money. Someone close to that person, like a child or a spouse, asks the court to appoint them as that person's conservator. They then have control over where a conservatee lives, what they do, what kind of medical treatment they receive, and how their money is spent.
"Conservatorship essentially strips away a person's ability to make their own decisions," Don Slater, an attorney who specializes in conservatorships, told VICE. "It's a very serious matter to take away somebody's personal freedoms and rights like a conservatorship does."
Slater said it's exceedingly rare to establish a conservatorship for someone under 65 years old. Spears was placed in one when she was 27, and she remains in it at 39. She filed a petition to terminate it in 2009, but her request was denied. Some fans are convinced that Spears still wants out, but she hasn't formally tried to break free of her conservatorship—or even publicly stated that she's unhappy with it—ever since. She and her court-appointed attorney, however, are reportedly trying to have her father, Jamie Spears, removed as her sole conservator, and appoint an independent third party to manage her finances.
For a deeper look into what makes Britney Spears’ legal situation so unusual, VICE spoke with three California attorneys who specialize in conservatorships: Scott Rahn, the founder and co-managing partner of RMO; Alex Ripps, a partner at Bohm Wildish & Matsen; and Slater, an attorney at Barr & Young.
VICE: What are your thoughts on the situation Britney Spears is in?
Don Slater: I was just deeply saddened watching the documentary. My mouth was open. I left it concluding that the only way she is where she is is that she has continued to consent to her situation. But consent is a funny thing. I mean, consent in this instance means signing your name to a piece of paper, and when people ask you, 'Do you want a conservatorship,' making sure you say yes. The only way she's in this situation, realistically, is if when people ask her what she wants, she's telling them this is what she wants, whether that's true or not.
I was happy to see that she wants a change made, that she doesn't want her father to be in place anymore. I was happy to see that at least some sort of wish from her is getting to the court. But that's only half the battle, because the other half of the battle is making sure that whoever is looking out for your interests is doing it as zealously as they can. Sometimes in these cases, when an attorney conveys something to the court, it can be with a wink and a nod.
Alex Ripps: I don't know anything about [Spears' case] outside of the documentary, so I don't know, really, the full history of it. But based strictly on that, it does seem unusual, given that she's obviously a functioning person. She can tour, and do all the things that she does as a celebrity and a performer. That being said, there are also parts of a conservatorship that are not made public; they deal with a lot of medical information. So we don't know everything. I did see the current judge is Brenda Penny, who, just in my personal opinion, is one of the best judges at Stanley Mosk, which is the courthouse downtown that handles probate issues.
Do you think Spears should be in a conservatorship?
Scott Rahn: That's really hard to answer without having the inside facts. If the facts and circumstances show that she's capable of managing her affairs, then I don't think that she should be conserved, no. The thing I don't know enough about, that I would welcome the opportunity to take a deeper look at, is just how her situation has improved—to really have a deeper understanding of whether she has grown out of the need to be protected.
AR: She clearly doesn't have Alzheimer's disease. She doesn't have autism or any other disease that severely limits her cognitive function, or at least it doesn't appear that way. So you have to think, what are the other reasons that could have been presented? You have to assume there was some showing of at least mental instability, combined with a susceptibility to undue influence. That's my assumption. Obviously, she's able to communicate, and presumably dress herself and feed herself. We don't know what we don't know. But it does seem a little unusual, given her ability to function, that this conservatorship is still in place.
DS: From the little I saw and have seen of Britney Spears, there's no way she would, in my mind, qualify for conservatorship under normal circumstances. If she truly recognizes that she needed help, then this could be a good solution. If, on the other end, this isn't truly what she wants—if it's coerced in any way, or she feels pressure for this to be her life—she needs to stand up for herself, and fight off whatever influences those are. But if she can't do that—if she doesn't have friends and family to do it for her—it won't happen.
It very well could be a situation where she recognizes she needs help, is happy with the arrangement, and all the people around her think it's a working arrangement too. On the other hand, it could be that no one is willing to do what it takes to stop it.
The only time Spears filed a petition to be released from her conservatorship was in 2009, but some of her fans are convinced that she wants out, and she's unable to say that for some reason. Is there any way that her conservators, or any other parties, could prevent her from filing a petition to terminate the conservatorship, or prevent her from stating publicly that she wants it to end?
DS: The conservator is not legally allowed to control social interaction. They can get a court order to do that, but a conservator doesn't generally have the ability to limit who somebody sees, who somebody talks with, what somebody says. But that's in a pure legal sense, right? In a real, practical way, of course the people around her could probably control who she talks to, what she says, and who she's with. I thought about that, too: If she wanted out, how could she tell the people outside of her immediate circle? I mean, a post on the internet, a post on her social media—I don't know if those are monitored, and how quickly things can be removed. I just have to imagine that if she really wanted to, she could Google a high-powered attorney in L.A., call their number, and say, "Get me out of conservatorship," and it would happen.
AR: It's hard to really know what's going on there. To what extent is her travel restricted? To what extent do they restrict who she interacts with? Maybe there's some sort of a Stockholm Syndrome, where all of a sudden, she's kind of in this bubble, and she's just accepted it. There's probably some level of restriction, as far as who she sees. And then just due to her overwhelming celebrity, she probably naturally limits who she interacts with.
SR: I think that if you or I were in a situation where we thought that we were being treated unjustly, and we had an opportunity to go to court and talk to the judge, or had the access to media in other outlets, you would certainly take advantage of those to say, "Hey, I'm here and I need help." The court is going to be the first one to hear that. Despite what a lot of people think, the judges want to hear from the conservatees. It's not a black box where a bunch of old fuddy-duddies get into a room and just make decisions based upon what's written on the paper. The judges take conservatorships very seriously, take into consideration what the conservatee has to say, and look at all of the evidence in making some really, really hard decisions.
But is it possible that she's in a position where her life is being so closely controlled, so closely monitored, that she can't express that she wants to end the conservatorship?
SR: I think it's highly unlikely. You're talking about layers and layers and layers of conspiracy, in essence. To support your conclusion, you would need the judge to be complicit, you would need a court-appointed counsel to be complicit, you would need the conservator to be complicit, you would need her family to be complicit, you would need the social media people that wouldn't allow her to tweet things out. Is it possible? Look, I've seen so many things throughout the course of my career that nothing is impossible. But I don't think it's probable.
You have to recall that she has court-appointed counsel, who I know, and I think very highly of. He's very ethical. I think that if she wanted to make that request [to terminate her conservatorship], it is the duty of that court-appointed counsel to make her wishes known. So even if she was being managed by everyone else to say nothing, she should have an opportunity, at the very least, to tell her counsel, "I want to terminate the conservatorship." And then that attorney is duty-bound to advance that interest on her behalf.
If she wanted to, could Spears hire a private attorney to represent her?
DS: If a conservatorship has been granted, the conservatee doesn't have the legal ability to make a contract anymore. So one school of thinking would be that an attorney can't be hired to represent a person who doesn't have the ability to make a contract. Maybe even ethically, they can't represent somebody who can't form an agency with them and give them instructions, legally. It might be difficult to find an attorney to take on the case. And even if they did, the court might not allow the attorney to represent them in court, by finding that they weren't able to hire an attorney in the first place.
AR: If the person is already under conservatorship, then presumably they don't have control over their finances. You're then [as a lawyer] also concerned about, how are you eventually going to get paid? Conservatorships, especially contested ones, are just a lot of work. They take a lot of time, a lot of hours. And some lawyers are willing to do the work upfront and wait for payment way down the road, and hope it comes. But most aren't. Most lawyers like to be paid as they go for the work that they do. So you're dealing with somebody who potentially doesn't have the capacity to contract, and might have significant issues related to funding. That makes it very difficult.
DS: My first thought after finishing the documentary was: I know—including myself—five attorneys that, if Britney called us and said, "Help me," would devote our practices to showing up in court and making sure that something was done. I think many attorneys, in Britney's case, would not be worried about payments at all.
If you were representing Britney Spears, what would you do?
AR: [If she wanted to terminate the conservatorship], I would basically go to the court and say, these are the reasons why a conservatorship is generally needed and granted. And none of these things apply to me now. I'm capable of providing shelter for myself; I'm capable of feeding myself; I'm capable of obtaining medical treatment. And on the financial side, I'm capable of managing my finances, I'm capable of providing for my children.
If they're not going to lift the conservatorship, I would at least ask for an independent fiduciary. In California, there are professionals—they're called private professional fiduciaries—and they're licensed by the state. The whole point is that they are independent. They're not family, they're not friends, they are professionals. In theory, that removes any potential malfeasance that a family member might engage in. That's what I would do.
SR: I don't know enough about what [her court-appointed attorney] is doing or not doing to suggest that I would do anything different. I would likely do what I'm expecting he's doing currently, which is continue to have very meaningful discussions with Britney about what her options are: to simply check in, review the conservatorship, what's happened, and whether she's content with that. And if she's not, [I would find out] what she's not content with, and what changes need to be made, and then raise those issues with the court—including up to seeking to terminate the conservatorship entirely.
DS: I would demand, to the fullest extent of the law, everything—every procedural avenue she has available to her. I would demand a trial; I would subpoena every person in her life to explain what she wants and why she doesn't need what is happening to her. I would get my own medical experts and neuropsychological experts to evaluate her and explain to the court that she should be able to voice her opinion on this matter, and be taken seriously. And I would work very hard to show why her father doesn't need to be the conservator—that somebody else can be just as effective as he is and why there are grounds to remove him, potentially. I would look for conflicts of interest that are hurting her. But frankly, I think it should be enough that she wants a professional instead of her father. That should be enough.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.