Britney Spears’ Conservatorship Shines A Light On The Legal Remedy’s Harsh Reality
LOS ANGELES — The claims Britney Spears made recently about her conservatorship sounded more like the privations of a totalitarian regime than the California court system: that she was not allowed to visit her friends or hire her own attorney, was forced to work grueling hours against her will, was drugged when she disobeyed, and was ordered to keep a device in her uterus to prevent a pregnancy even though she wants a baby.
No one outside her inner circle and the court can know the truth of these statements. But experts in probate law say the singer’s account is well within the realm of how conservatorship works.
“What she describes happening absolutely could happen, absolutely could be true,” said Andy Mayoras, a probate lawyer and legal commentator who has written extensively with his wife and legal partner, Danielle, about Spears’ case. “This is one of the most restrictive legal remedies that exist in the American judicial system. You’re taking away a person’s right to make any decisions over themselves.”
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In 2008, after Spears had a series of public meltdowns and two hospitalizations for psychological evaluations, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge granted a petition filed by her once-estranged father, Jamie Spears, to assume full control of her life.
Such a drastic measure is usually taken in cases of people with severe intellectual disabilities, mental illness or dementia. It hadn’t been used for a celebrity spiraling out of control.
The question for many experts now is why is Britney Spears still in this position?
She performed a four-year concert residency in Las Vegas that grossed $137 million and did a season as a judge on “The X Factor” before she was let go by Simon Cowell because, according to him, she wasn’t combative enough.
“I find it hard to understand how someone who was working as hard as she was, both entertaining and judging on the TV show, that she was capable of doing all those things, is totally incapable of making any decision for herself,” said Leslie Salzman, a clinical professor of law at the Cardozo School of Law and an expert on elder law, disability law and conservatorships. “It’s hard to believe.”
Salzman said Spears’ celebrity places a spotlight on issues that have dogged thousands of everyday families in the conservatorship system for decades. “It does shine a light on the phenomenon that people don’t know about.”
Spears, 39, spoke out last week against the conservatorship for the first time in a 23-minute statement to Judge Brenda J. Penny.
She described an Orwellian world in which she is paying millions to therapists, managers, nurses, attorneys and her father as they, in her view, keep the money flowing by undermining her stability to the court.
“I worked seven days a week, no days off, which in California the only similar thing to this is called sex trafficking, making anyone work, work against their will, taking all their possessions away — credit card, cash, phone, passport card — and placing them in a home where they work with the people who live with them.
“They all lived in the house with me — the nurses, the 24/7 security. There was one chef that came there and cooked for me daily, during the weekdays. They watched me change every day — naked — morning, noon and night.”
Vivian Lee Thoreen, an attorney for Spears’ father, shared a message from her client last week: “He is sorry to see his daughter suffering and in so much pain. He loves his daughter and misses her very much.”
The standard for conservatorship is that the person is at risk of harm because they are unable to manage personal or financial affairs, and that they fail to understand the consequences of that inability. But the law also requires the court to find the least-restrictive alternative that will still keep the guardian’s life and finances intact.
“In Britney’s case, she could hire a financial management company to assist her,” Salzman said. “She could have a trusted friend.”
She and other experts interviewed emphasized that they didn’t have access to the court files and that there might be some underlying medical or psychiatric condition that justifies such an invasive conservatorship, but it would have to be extremely serious.
Barbara Jagiello has spent more than 40 years as a probate litigator in San Francisco and fought many times to remove restrictions on a person she said didn’t need them. She says the courts usually default to less restriction only when the conservator is someone who “truly cares.”
More often, she sees an inertia develop in these cases that keeps the heavy constraints.
“It’s harder to undo something than to do something,” she said.
In her view, this happens because the probate courtroom can be a cozy place where the judges, investigators, professional conservators, mental health evaluators and attorneys all know one another and carry a certain level of credibility. The conservatee is an outsider, often with the specter of mental illness hanging over them.
“The courts tend to want to get the information from the person who is giving them the most articulate response,” Jagiello said. “The person they signed to take control of this person’s life, they’ve already made a determination that this person is the more reliable source of what’s going on, so it’s kind of predetermined.
“The private fiduciaries show up, they’re well-spoken, they’re coiffed, they’re dressed right, they speak in terms of, ‘Oh, I’m only doing this in the best interest of the conservatee.'”
Elyn Saks, an expert in mental health law at the USC Gould School of Law, said there is a stigma in the courtroom about mental illness.
“People think people with mental health disorders can’t make their own decisions, so we have to appoint a conservator,” she said.
The main check to the system is that a probate investigator must review the situation every 18 months. But the investigator, like the judge, also relies on the credibility of the court appointees.
According to the New York Times, which reviewed an internal 2016 report, Spears told her probate investigator that the conservatorship was oppressive and that she wanted out. The investigator said it should continue because of her “complex finances, susceptibility to undue influence and ‘intermittent’ drug issues, yet called for ‘a pathway to independence and the eventual termination of the conservatorship.'”
Salzman was troubled by several aspects of the proceedings from the beginning. One, the judge didn’t allow Spears to hire her own attorney. Two, her court-appointed attorney, according to Spears’ testimony last week, never told her that she could file a petition to terminate the conservancy. And three, against Spears’ objections, the judge did not appoint a neutral conservator but selected her father, with whom she was known to have a rocky relationship.
In that role, Forbes reported, “Jamie Spears collected a monthly salary of $16,000 from his daughter’s estate, $2,000 a month for office space and a percentage of her business deals, including a cut of the Las Vegas residency.”
Last week, Britney Spears said she didn’t speak out earlier because she was “in shock” and “traumatized” by how she was manipulated.
She described how one day she didn’t want to do a “dance move” that her manager wanted.
“Ma’am, I’m not here to be anyone’s slave. I can say no to a dance move,” Spears said she told the manager.
“I was told by my at-the-time therapist … that my manager called him in that moment and told him that I wasn’t cooperating or following the guidelines in rehearsals. And he also said I wasn’t taking my medication, which is so dumb because I’ve had the same lady every morning for the past eight years give me my same medication (when) I’m nowhere near these stupid people. It made no sense at all.”
In 2019, when she told her managers she wanted to take a break from performing, she said her therapist again accused her of not cooperating and not taking her medications.
“He immediately, the next day, put me on lithium, out of nowhere. He took me off my normal meds I’ve been on for five years, and lithium is a very, very strong and completely different medication compared to what I was used to,” Spears said during the court hearing. “You can go mentally impaired if you take too much, if you stay on it longer than five months. But he put me on that, and I felt drunk.”
Mayoras said fear is a prime motivator that keeps people in conservatorships that may be abusive or exploitative.
“If the person is so controlled that they’re afraid to speak up and voice their concerns within the court, then conservatorship is just going to continue year after year after year,” Mayoras said. “It’s kind of like you’re between a rock and a hard place if you want to fight it, because what if there is retaliation, what if you lose the fight?
“Now that she’s finally spoken up, it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens next.”
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