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Britney Spears' Conservatorship Nightmare
Britney Spears’ conservatorship should concern us all. Spears, who is thirty-nine, has spent the past thirteen years living under a conservatorship, the legal structure in which a person’s personal, economic, and legal decision-making power is controlled by others. Called a “guardianship” in most states, the arrangement is legal for people who cannot take care of themselves, either mentally or physically. Her conservators, including her father Jamie Spears, have thus been given full control over her spending, communications, and personal decisions–even her reproductive choices. It begs the question of how people are able to manipulate and abuse the law. Thus, there needs to be structural change regarding conservatorships, especially within the areas of mental health and safety.
Spears’ case is unusual: conservatorships are typically not imposed on someone without severe cognitive impairments. Yet Spears has toured the world, released four albums, and earned over $130 million, all while deemed unable to manage her finances or her own body. But it does illustrate how easily conservatorships can be abused–which is one reason some members of Congress are considering ways to reform the state-run system.
Current California law regarding conservatorships can be seen through Senate Bill 724, introduced on Feb. 19 by Senator Ben Allen (Dem. District 26). lt gives conservatees in the state of California the right to obtain legal counsel of their choice, even if the person’s ability to make sound decisions is questionable. Spears, who has had a financially successful career throughout the last decade, recently petitioned to remove her father from his role as a conservator of her $60 million estate.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied the motion, making a November request to allow a trust to act as co-conservator of her estate. While the decision came just one week after the pop star's heartbreaking testimony about her father’s role as conservator, Judge Brenda Penny's ruling was not a result of that hearing, and was instead made on a request from November in which Spears' attorney filed to add Bessemer Trust to serve as co-conservator alongside the singer's father.
The testimony revealed the horrendous abuse that was going on behind the scenes of the conversatorship, which can be found here. Spears has rarely spoken for herself regarding the conservatorship, expressing her voice primarily through her court appointed attorney Samuel D. Ingham III. The message that has come across through her few communications up to this point, however, is that she would like her father's role in the arrangement to be significantly reduced: In November, Ingham reportedly told the judge that Spears is "afraid of her father" and "will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career."
Her ‘team’ is now jumping ship from the whole situation by resigning. Spears' longtime manager, Larry Rudolph. stepped down in a letter addressed to her father. Judge Penny approved the resignation of Spears' longtime court-appointed lawyer, as well as the resignation of the wealth management company Bessemer Trust. At the moment, this leaves Spears' father the sole conservator of her financial dealings.
Earlier this month, there was a major breakthrough in the proceedings, with Spears granted the ability to appoint her own lawyer rather than a court-appointed attorney. Spears has chosen Mathew S. Rosengart, a prominent Hollywood lawyer and former federal prosecutor, to take up her case. With this move, it’s now expected that he will be fighting to end the conservatorship altogether and restore Spears’ autonomy.
The Britney Spears case has drawn attention not just from music fans and legal activists, but from both sides of the political aisle, with everyone from Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz voicing their support for Spears. Though there have been numerous criticisms of the conservatorship structure, the high profile of this case could be what’s needed to affect permanent change. As we watch the #FreeBritney movement grow in size and scope, we’ll also be watching for long-overdue legal reform.