As attorneys, it’s always interesting when the media closely follows a legal matter. With social media, armchair reporters have taken active roles in amplifying narratives and reporting backstories behind legal filings. The court proceedings involving Britney Spears are particularly unique, because Spears is at the center of a case where she is not accused of doing anything wrong.
Unless you’ve been away from every social media and news source in the country, chances are you have seen, heard, or read about the #FreeBritney movement and the conservatorship controversy surrounding Britney Spears. The online campaign to #FreeBritney was started way back in 2009 after a fan believed Spears was being unfairly controlled by the court-ordered conservatorship, which at the time was just a year old. The #FreeBritney gained momentum in 2019 and 2020, and most recently after her June 23, 2021, statement to the court.
To briefly recap, Britney Spears’s conservatorship was granted by the court in 2008 after a series of personal struggles, incidents, and hospitalizations. As a major celebrity, Spears’s actions were closely scrutinized by the press, including run-ins with paparazzi, a series of traffic offenses, and visits to rehab facilities. In January 2007, over the course of a difficult few days, Spears lost her aunt to cancer, went to Eric Clapton’s drug rehabilitation center in Antigua for less than a day, and famously shaved her head at a Los Angeles hair salon.
Spears’s situation escalated in January 2008, when she refused to give custody of her sons to her ex-husband’s representatives. Police came to her home and she was hospitalized. In an emergency hearing, her visitation rights to her children were suspended, and her ex-husband was given sole physical and legal custody of her sons. She was committed to UCLA Medical Center and put on a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold. The court placed her under a conservatorship led by her father, Jamie Spears, and attorney Andrew Wallet.
Spears is not the first celebrity to be under a conservatorship. Nickelodeon star Amanda Bynes has been under a conservatorship since 2013. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, DJ Casey Kasem, and famous Hollywood actor Mickey Rooney were all at one point under a conservatorship. Mickey Rooney’s assets were permanently handed over to a conservator in 2011, and his arrangement was reportedly so controlling he wasn’t even allowed to buy food or carry identification. However, Rooney was 90 years old when he was placed under conservatorship, a stark difference from Britney Spears.
According to an article published in AARP in October 2018, an estimated 1.3 million adults are under guardianship in this country, perhaps 85 percent of them over 65. While conservatorships are common enough, it is rare to see someone in their 20’s or 30’s under a conservatorship, while continuing to successfully make substantial income. In the last 13 years of her conservatorship, Britney Spears released albums, judged The X Factor and brought in an estimated $137.7 million performing in Las Vegas from 2013 to 2017. News outlets even presented the narrative that Spears was thriving under the “unusual” conservatorship. In 2016, the NY Times reported, “The business of being Britney Spears is booming. And the pop star can seek a change in her conservatorship status — if she chooses to make a move.”
On June 23, 2021, Spears finally spoke to the court, asking to end her conservatorship, saying “I just want my life back. The conservatorship should end. I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive.” Although she had never spoken on it publicly before, Spears has opposed the conservatorship privately for years. In her statement to the judge, Spears alleged she was medicated with lithium and prohibited from removing a birth control device which would allow her to possibly have more children.
As attorneys, we know that what is reported in the news is often not the full story. In conservatorship and guardianship cases, a lot of evidence is withheld from the public. Despite the amount of news coverage and media interest, we only get small snippets of a complicated situation, as many of the statements, confidential records, and testimony are not made public. We do not know the specific reasons why Spears’s conservatorship has lasted this long.
While Spears’s request to the court on June 23 was amplified by her loyal fans who have steadfastly supported her, they only know part of the story as well. The lack of knowledge and perceived secrecy has led to rumors and conspiracy theories about Britney’s life.
Ultimately, we have no way of knowing if Spears needs the conservatorship. Her statements to the court are concerning, of course, but the public is not privy to ANY of the medical records and/or testimony regarding the rationales for the conservatorship. However, with any guardianship or conservatorship situation, there is a concern about potential conflicts of interest. According to Forbes, Britney Spears has paid her father Jamie Spears $16,000 a month as a salary for managing her estate. It is impossible to argue that he has not financially benefited from his role.
Despite her comments to the judge in court, as of July 1, 2021, Spears has not yet filed a petition to end her conservatorship. Although she did request to have her father removed as conservator, the judge did not take her June 23 statement into account when evaluating her request to have her father removed, because she had not filed a formal petition to end the conservatorship. It remains to be seen what will happen next. We will be following the outcome of this case and hope for the best possible outcome for Britney.