Why does Britney Spears still have a conservator? Legal expert says her case file suggests answers
Britney Spears has been under a conservatorship – meaning she's not in total control of her finances and other important life decisions – for nearly a dozen years, so maybe it's time to ask: Why does a 37-year-old pop superstar, a multi-millionaire with a string of platinum-selling records, a former "X Factor" judge and a recently reigning queen of Las Vegas residencies, still need a guardian looking after her?
Insights can be gleaned from the contents of Spears' voluminous file in probate court in Los Angeles, according to L.A. lawyer Troy Martin, who examined the file in conjunction with USA TODAY. He says his reading of the documents indicates that Spears may not want to be released from guardianship.
Or at least not yet.
Spears suffered a mental breakdown in 2007, alarmingly played out before the paparazzi who captured her behaving erratically, at one point attacking a car with an umbrella and at another shaving her head.
Her father, James "Jamie' Spears, 67, was appointed her co-conservator in 2008 along with a lawyer, Andrew Wallet, who has since resigned. Last month, Jamie Spears temporarily stepped aside, apparently because of his own health issues, but will still handle her finances while a professional conservator will handle her person.
More than a decade later, "There's been no formal request by her to get out of conservatorship," says Martin, whose practice is focused on such cases in California. He's been involved in some high-profile conservatorship battles, including those surrounding comic actor Tim Conway and American Top 40 radio host Casey Kasem, who died in 2019 and 2014 respectively. He's not involved in Spears' case.
According to a document in the file, Spears' L.A. lawyer in the conservatorship case, Samuel Ingham, said at a hearing last month that Spears was not in attendance because she "does not object" to either her father or the proposed professional conservator.
Ingham, who rarely talks to the media, did not return a call from USA TODAY seeking elaboration. Spears' other lawyers and her publicist, Jeff Raymond, also did not return calls from USA TODAY.
Martin says Spears may have made a verbal request to Judge Brenda Penny during one of the court hearings on her case, from which the public and media were barred. Some of the documents in her file are sealed or redacted, but there appears to be no official petition from her seeking termination of the conservatorship.
"There's no record of this except the court (recently) appointed a medical expert to advise the court about her medical issues, to examine her for ability to make intelligent decisions, can she manage her own affairs or is she still subject to undue influence or to being taken advantage of," Martin says.
The expert presented that assessment to the judge at a hearing on Sept. 18 but the public was barred from the proceeding and it's not clear whether decisions made that day will ever be made public.
Still, "if (Spears) had made a verbal request to terminate, this (appointing an expert) is what the judge would do in response," Martin says.
What is a conservatorship (as it's called in California; other states refer to as a guardianship)? If nothing else, the Spears case brings public attention to a little-understood section of probate law, even though Spears is an uncommon example because of her relative youth and her fame.
Most conservatorships in California, Martin says, involve either developmentally disabled individuals who have reached adulthood at age 18 and their parents seek to be appointed as conservators. The other, larger category of candidates for conservatorship are elderly people, many with dementia, who may be vulnerable to financial abuse.
So why wouldn't Spears want to be free of a conservatorship? Because putting someone else in charge of her life seems to have been good for her and is still necessary, Martin says.
"Everybody looks at conservatorship as a terrible thing foisted on her. I look at it as a success story," Martin says. "Britney was in a downward spiral, there were 5150s (involuntary temporary psychiatric holds) filed on her as a possible danger to herself or others. Her life was a wreck. ... By all appearances, things are a heck of lot better now than they were in 2008."
In fact, says longtime music industry observer and blogger Bob Lefsetz of The Lefsetz Letter, why change what appears to be working well?
"It’s not like she’s chaffing under it. She doesn’t seem to be complaining; no one seems to be complaining," Lefsetz says.
But what about the fans? A crowd of #freeBritney protesters showed up outside the Sept. 18 hearing, waving signs reading, "Justice for Britney" and "Dissolve the conservatorship."
Lefsetz says the fans are in the dark. "We're talking about someone's mental health and the fans are secondary to that. You've got to ignore the fans, they don’t have intimate knowledge of what's going on.
"The bottom line is I don't see any smoking guns here."
But the American Civil Liberties Union is leery of conservatorships as a potential weapon to deprive disabled people of their rights. It fought, and lost, California's recent expansion of state law to make it easier to place homeless mentally ill and addicted people under conservatorship against their will.
Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney in San Francisco with the Disability Rights Project of the ACLU, says civil-liberties advocates are not in the "#freeBritney" camp, but they regard the legal process of conservatorships as extreme, opaque, paternalistic and often unnecessary. Spears' case doesn't seem to meet the state standard for conservatorship, which is that the person can't provide for her own food, clothing and shelter, she says
"As a general matter we worry about conservatorships and have found that it's very easy to get into and extremely hard to get out of, and the problem is they are stripping a person of all her civil rights and liberties," Brennan-Krohn says. "It can seem to be a sort of benign process if the conservator is well-meaning. But even if it seems benign, the person does not have their rights about basic things."
Conservatorship is supposed to be a last resort, she says, and instead it's increasingly the first resort. "There is a huge gap between being able to do everything for yourself and being able to do nothing for yourself. Conservatorship collapses that gap, so if you need some support, we’re just going to take away all your rights and do everything for you...Most of us are free to make bad choices and learn from them but that's not true about people with disabilities."
Meanwhile, in her most recent public appearance, Spears and her current boyfriend, Sam Asghari, attended the premiere of Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon A Time in Hollywood" on July 22 in Hollywood, and she was glowing.
This week, she posted a video of herself and Asghari doing gymnastics and stretching in the backyard, on her Instagram page, where she frequently posts about her efforts to keep fit.
But if she's so much improved, fans wonder, why is her life still under restraints? It's an understandable confusion, Martin says.
"Here you have a young lady in the prime of life, she seems productive and she looks good and you don’t understand why she is subjected to a conservatorship," Martin says. "But she is still at risk. In my review of the court file, and what I've seen in the media, the conservatorship appears to be functioning exactly the way it’s supposed to."
"The conservatorship is not a jail," said Larry Rudolph, Spears' longtime manager, in an interview with The Washington Post in May. "It helps Britney make business decisions and manage her life in ways she can’t do on her own right now.” Rudolph did not return a call from USA TODAY.
Spears' life started unraveling in 2007 after she and Kevin Federline, father of her sons, filed for divorce and a custody battle ensued. She suffered a mental breakdown that was splayed across tabloid pages: Britney without panties, Britney shaving her head, Britney in and out of hospitals. She also lost custody of her kids.
The conservatorship arrangement was aimed at protecting Spears, Martin says, and it seems to have worked. "It looks like she’s thriving under this conservatorship – it impacts her, she can’t make all the decisions she wants, but it looks good from this court file."
In the 2008 MTV documentary “Britney: For the Record,” she was candid about the downside of not being in control. "Even when you go to jail, you know, there’s the time when you’re going to get out. But in this situation, it’s never-ending. It’s just like the movie 'Groundhog Day,' ” she said in the film.
Still, during the conservatorship, Spears has continued to make best-selling records, to tour, to appear at awards shows, to launch her Vegas residencies, and even to become the then-highest-paying judge on a singing competition show, with a reported salary of $15 million to join "The X Factor."
And Spears is richer now, according to Martin: Her father, who has been her sole or co-conservator since the beginning, has managed to increase the value of her estate to about $59 million, not counting increases in real estate values, Martin says.
"He has to file every year an accounting of all of her finances, and though some documents are redacted, they show that under his control her estate has gone up between $28 million and $47 million, which is substantial," Martin says. "It doesn't sound like a situation in which she is being taken advantage of."
The questions about the need for Spears' conservatorship come up now because of the recent flurry of court hearings in her case, barred to the public and media but recorded in some documents in her case file.
Last month, the judge approved Jamie Spears temporarily stepping aside as sole conservator, although the court file shows he will still have control over his daughter's finances, Martin says.
But the judge appointed a professional conservator, licensed and bonded by the state, to be guardian overseeing everything else, including Spears' security, visitors and medical and psychiatric treatment.
Martin says the documents in the file, plus her own comments on social media, indicate that Spears' mental-health issues may not be entirely resolved. In public, there have been setbacks. In January, she announced she would indefinitely postpone her new Las Vegas residency show, "Domination," because her father has been so ill with a ruptured colon he almost died.
She said on social media her heart was broken. "It’s important to always put your family first … and that’s the decision I had to make," she tweeted. "We’re all so grateful that he came out of it alive, but he still has a long road ahead of him."
In April, she checked into a wellness facility for some "me time," as she said on Instagram. "Just checking in with all of you who are concerned about me. All is well," Spears said in a video posted later to Instagram. "My family has been going through a lot of stress and anxiety lately, so I just needed time to deal."
Another issue, Martin says, is the attempt by one of her former associates, Sam Lutfi, to insinuate himself back into her life. Lutfi claimed to be Spears' manager but her team has always denied it and accused him of being a bad influence on her when she was vulnerable.
In her April Instagram post, Spears blamed Lutfi for sending "fake emails" pretending to be her. "Don’t believe everything you read and hear. These fake emails everywhere were crafted by Sam Lutfi years ago... I did not write them," she said in her post.
In June, Judge Penny issued a five-year restraining order forbidding Lutfi from contacting Spears or her family or making disparaging statements about them online. Penny rejected arguments from Lutfi that the order is an unconstitutional restraint on his free speech, calling Lutfi's testimony evasive.
Jamie Spears testified that Lutfi was a "predator" on his family for more than a decade and his alleged harassment has recently resumed. Lutfi's Twitter account features multiple posts along the #FreeBritney line.
"I worried that he was trying to take down the conservatorship," Spears told Judge Penny at the hearing. "I was very angry. I was worried that we were right back in 2008."
But it's not 2008 again, at least not according to what's public in Spears' court file. And that's largely down to Jamie Spears, whatever family drama might be going on behind the scenes.
Why is so much of Spears' case closed to the public and media? For the same reason most people would expect their medical records to be private: It's not the public's business.
If 24/7 media scrutiny was bad for Spears when she was in the throes of her mental-health problems in 2007, why would a return to that kind of attention be good for her now?