Wtf is a Conservatorship?

Britney Spears

Last month we all watched Framing Britney Spears in horror: how did her deadbeat dad get control over her life?

My book Bad Lawyer drops this May. It’s about my wack experiences in law school, courthouses, and law offices. The idea is to demystify law as a revered profession. And in anticipation of its release, I’ve decided to do a series of accessible and hopefully entertaining primers on legal topics. I think a lot of people are curious about what exactly is taught in law school but are intimidated by the unnecessarily esoteric and elitist way the material is presented.

So here is my attempt to elucidate, to show you it isn’t that scary and can at times even approach enjoyable.

So…wtf is a conservatorship?

Basically, a conservatorship allows a judge to appoint a guardian to manage another’s financial affairs and/or daily life due to physical or mental limitations. Conservators can take control of a conservatee’s estate, meaning their finances, or their “person,” which can include their daily activities, health care, and living arrangements.

Often, conservators are parents of developmentally disabled adults or guardians for elderly people with dementia. A few high-profile celebrities have been assigned conservators following struggles with mental health, including Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, and Amanda Bynes. There was speculation this summer that the Kardashians were attempting to put Kanye West under conservatorship. But the word comes up most often in relation to Britney Spears.

Wtf is a Conservatorship | Britney

The pop star, now 39, has been under conservatorship for 13 years.

Following a 2008 public meltdown that resulted in Britney’s hospitalization, Spears’ father Jamie Spears and attorney Andrew Wallet were appointed conservators by a California Judge. After Britney’s release, the conservatorship was made permanent.

The order has been in place since.

Jamie has since had power over Britney’s medical decisions, career, and well-being. His legal team has argued that Jamie has helped restore Britney’s mental health, mend her relationship with her children, and resuscitate her career. With Jamie’s help, his lawyer’s maintain, Britney’s estate has transformed from being in debt to being worth over $60 million.

But in August 2020, the pop star’s attorney said she “strongly opposed” Jamie being the sole conservator, arguing that a corporate fiduciary should take over.

Then in November 2020, Britney’s attorney said she was afraid of her father and would not continue to perform if he was her conservator. Afterward, a judge granted Britney’s petition to appoint financial group Bessemer Trust as co-conservator. Britney is still petitioning the court to remove Jamie so that Bessemer Trust can be the sole conservator.

On February 3, Britney’s counsel said “it would be highly detrimental to Britney’s interests” to allow her father to be the only person in charge of her estate.

ACLU attorney Zoe Brennan-Krohn said conservatorships are often accompanied by risks of “financial, physical and emotional abuse.” They limit a person’s ability to advocate for themselves, learn from their mistakes, and grow. “There is a risk in being told that your opinions, your likes and dislikes, don’t matter — it makes it harder to stand up to abuse or neglect.” Brennan-Krohn cautioned that conservatorships should be viewed with skepticism and used as a last resort.

Given the inherent risks associated with conservatorships, it seems strange that Jamie of all people was granted this role. Growing up, Britney’s mother Lynn was her primary caregiver, while Jamie struggled with alcoholism and couldn’t hold down a steady job.

In the documentary, Jive Records marketing executive describes Jamie as absent from his daughter’s life early on. “The only thing Jamie ever said to me was, ‘My daughter’s gonna be so rich, she’s gonna buy me a boat,’” she says. “That’s all I’m gonna say about Jamie.”

So why did Jamie get conservatorship?

I texted my lawyer friend that question, saying it made no sense the court would appoint such a shady figure for this delicate role.

She said, “I hundred percent agree it makes no sense. Even if he’s not abusing the privileges there’s no reason why a third party shouldn’t be put into place if that’s what she’s requested.”

I said my cynical mind assumed Jamie was friends with the judge or something.

She said that made sense, or he could be friends with the doctors who made the recommendations. She said the continued conservatorship was especially bizarre given that Jamie allegedly abused Britney’s son in 2019, prompting Kevin Federline to obtain a restraining order.

For years, Britney fans have speculated that she is sending secret messages through her social media asking for help. The podcast Britney’s Gram is dedicated to dissecting her social media posts for clues, and the #FreeBritney has brought attention to her legal battle against Jamie. Fans have staged protests outside the Los Angeles courthouse where hearings take place.

Last September, Britney’s legal team acknowledged the #FreeBritney movement.

In response to Jamie’s attempt to seal information, Britney’s attorney wrote: “Far from being a conspiracy theory or a ‘joke’ as James [Jamie] reportedly told the media, in large part this scrutiny is a reasonable and even predictable result of James’s aggressive use of the sealing procedure over the years to minimize the amount of meaningful information made available to the public.”

And after years, it seems Britney is finally making progress in her quest to become free of Jamie’s control.

In February, a judge denied Britney Spears’ father increased power over her affairs. Specifically, the judge denied James Spears’ objections to sharing monetary control over the conservatorship with Bessemer Trust.

While not a total victory, this move shows the court is open to reducing Jamie’s control. That said, Jamie still has the power to oversee his daughter’s affairs. And since the documentary aired, Jamie’s lawyer has gone on Good Morning America and NBC News to try to clear his name.

“Britney being safe and not being taken advantage of is his No. 1 priority,” his lawyer said, expanding that Jamie “would love nothing more than to see Britney not need a conservatorship.”

Since Jamie has successfully kept most court records under seal, there is a lot we don’t know. There might be a reason the judge continues to keep Jamie. But it’s hard to think of one.

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