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Framing Britney Spears documents Britney Spears’ rise to superstardom, the traumatizing paparazzi-fueled public scrutiny and rampant speculation she experienced at the peak of her fame, and a subsequent span of chaos that ultimately led to her father obtaining complete control of her personal and financial life in 2008. Thirteen years and hundreds of millions of dollars in income later, Spears continues to live in what is called a legal conservatorship and a legion of fans hoping to inspire a judge to #FreeBritney from what they believe to be an involuntary arrangement. With Spears, Framing finds a sympathetic, seemingly healthy, and incredibly productive figure to highlight how odd it is that a young adult with a vast fortune and even vaster talent is deemed “incapable” of caring for her own well-being while publicly continuing to dazzle on stage and in the studio. But while Framing explains how Spears came to be in the conservatorship, it does not answer the question of why she has never formally sought to end it. As explained below, Spears may attempt to petition to terminate the arrangement. What happens afterwards remains to be seen.
What is a conservatorship?
A conservatorship is a legal arrangement under which a person or entity (a “conservator”) is appointed by a court to care for the personal and/or financial well-being of an individual who has been found to be incapable of acting in their own best interests (a “conservatee”). California law provides for three types of conservatorships: Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS), Limited Probate and General Probate. Since 2008, Spears has been in a General Probate conservatorship.
LPS conservatorships are handled by the mental health courts and used when a person is “gravely disabled,” meaning they are experiencing severe mental health disorders and require temporary, highly restrictive, care and living arrangements because they cannot or will not agree to treatment, and who otherwise would be unable to feed, clothe or house themselves.
Limited Probate conservatorships are handled by the probate courts and are for adults who cannot fully care for themselves or their property because they live with severe and chronic developmental disabilities resulting from a mental or physical impairment that began before they reached age 18.
Finally, General Probate conservatorships, which are also handled by the probate courts, are for adults — typically elderly individuals experiencing cognitive decline — who have been deemed incapable of caring for themselves or handling their personal finances or likely to be taken advantage of and whose circumstances do not fall into either of the other two types of conservatorships.
Because of their highly restrictive nature, LPS conservatorships expire after one year, with the conservator having to file a new petition to renew the arrangement. Limited Conservatorships continue until the authority of the conservator is terminated through the death of the conservator, death of the conservatee, or court order. Similarly, General Probate conservatorships continue until the death of the conservatee or until they are terminated by court order. Limited and General conservatees each have the right to petition for termination of the conservatorship.
Why was Spears initially placed into a conservatorship?
As explained in Framing, Spears appeared to suffer multiple mental breakdowns in 2007 and early 2008 highlighted by magazine images of her shaved head, checking into rehab, and two stints in a psychiatric ward. Through this turbulent time, a mysterious stranger named Sam Lutfi appeared to be gaining influence over Spears’ affairs, much to the concern of Spears’ family and friends.
Soon after the second psychiatric hospitalization, Spears’ father, James, petitioned for a temporary general probate conservatorship. On February 1, 2008, the Los Angeles Superior Court placed Spears under a temporary conservatorship with James named as temporary conservator of Spears’ “Person.” James was also named co-conservator of Spears’ “Estate” with attorney Andrew Wallet.
One of James’ first acts as Spears’ conservator was to successfully obtain a restraining order against Lutfi, alleging that Lutfi had been drugging, isolating and verbally abusing Spears. At the end of 2008, the conservatorship became permanent.
What are the terms of Spears’ Conservatorship?
Unless specifically limited by court order, a conservatee retains certain “personal rights,” including the rights to marry, make medical decisions, vote, receive visitors, phone calls and personal mail. The conservatee also has the right to ask questions and express their opinions, concerns and complaints about the arrangement and the conservator’s decisions, and has the right to ask the court to review the conservator’s actions. To ensure that the conservatee is aware of these rights, courts will periodically send a court investigator to visit and speak with the conservatee, advise them of their rights, and inquire about their treatment and circumstances.
While the complete details of Spears’ conservatorship arrangement are not fully public, James’ role as conservator of Spears’ “Person” generally meant that he was given decision-making control and responsibility over Spears’ living situation, health care, meals, clothing, transportation, social needs and recreation, with the primary goal of providing her with the best quality of life possible. Reports and court orders have indicated that Spears’ conservators have had the authority to restrict and limit her visitors, oversee her personal security and dictate her medical and psychiatric treatment.
As co-conservators of Spears’ “Estate,” James and Wallet were responsible for managing Spears’ finances, including collecting and protecting her income and assets, investing her money, paying her bills with her money, making sure her taxes are in order and keeping orderly records of her income and expenditures. As conservator of Spears’ Estate, they were also obligated to file accountings of her finances with the court at least every two years.
Between 2008 and 2019, Spears was incredibly productive as a musical artist, performer and entertainer, as evidenced by her release of four albums, stint as a judge on The X-Factor television program and acclaimed Las Vegas residency. In early 2019, Wallet resigned, leaving James as the sole conservator of both Spears’ Person and Estate.
In September 2019, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge granted James’ request to relieve him of his duties as conservator of Spears’ Person, but not her Estate, and temporarily replaced him with Jodi Montgomery, a professional conservator previously serving in the capacity of Spears’ care manager. Although initially intended to be a temporary replacement, Montgomery continues to serve as the sole conservator of Spears’ Person with the approval of Spears’ court-appointed attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III.
In contrast, Spears’ father is no longer in sole control of her Estate. In 2020, Ingham represented to the court that Spears wanted her father to be replaced as conservator of her Estate by fiduciary entity Bessemer Trust, noting that Spears is afraid of her father and will not perform until her father is no longer in charge of her career. While the court did not remove James as conservator of Spears’ Estate, it added Bessemer Trust as co-conservator.
Why is Spears still in a conservatorship?
California probate law allows several people or entities to file a petition for the termination of the conservatorship, including the conservator, the conservatee, “the spouse, or domestic partner, or any relative or friend of the conservatee or other interested person.” If no party objects to the petition, then it is commonly granted. Otherwise, the court must determine that that the conservatee is now able to handle their own affairs, sometimes utilizing the court investigator to first evaluate the conservatee’s condition.
However, to date, neither Spears nor her attorney have sought to formally terminate the conservatorship. In the same 2020 court filing in which Spears sought to replace her father with Bessemer Trust, Spears’ attorney described the conservatorship as “voluntary.” Later in the filing, Ingham noted that while Spears prefers for Bessemer Trust to serve as conservator of Estate in place of her father, Ingham reserved Spears’ rights to “seek termination of this conservatorship in the future.”
It is possible that Spears’ attorney is setting the table for an eventual termination petition and sought to remove James from the equation in order to prevent having to litigate against his potential objections. It is also equally possible that Spears may prefer to maintain the conservatorship in some capacity as she gradually assumes more control over her life and finances.
Whether Spears would succeed in a petition to terminate is unknown and we do not know the personal and private details of Spears’ mental health. Further, when asked during the documentary whether she was aware of any conservatee ever having succeeded in terminating their conservatorship, attorney Vivian Lee Thoreen — who has represented James in the conservatorship proceedings — said no. There is a dearth of data on conservatorships at both the national and state level, and published opinions of circumstances similar to those of Spears are too few to be able draw any parallel or predictions. Nonetheless, Framing‘s discussion of conservatorships — which apply most often to the elderly — brings much-needed attention to an opaque area of law that will become more relevant to the lives of the steadily aging United States population.
Framing tells the story of a small-town Louisiana girl whose innate talent, extreme fight to succeed and positive charm inspired a generation of kids. It also tells the story of how this girl grew into a woman who was the target of a seemingly never-ending series of sexist attacks on her chastity, appearance and even motherhood during the peak of tabloid culture, pushing her to the point of losing her marriage, custody of her children and control of her personal freedom and financial life. Framing documents how the #FreeBritney movement was borne out of the belief that Spears has been manipulated into continuing to let her father and others manage her affairs via the conservatorship arrangement. And #FreeBritney has grown as that same generation of kids inspired by Spears are channeling social media to send back to Spears the inspiration they received from her at pivotal points in their lives. They want to lift their hero up to come back stronger than yesterday, and that is understandable. However, until the court is confronted with a petition to terminate the conservatorship entirely, Spears’ own views on the arrangement may remain a mystery. But one thing is for certain: thanks to Framing, the world is back to engaging in rampant speculation of every aspect of Britney Spears’ life.
Allen Secretov is an entertainment, intellectual property and business litigation attorney. He has represented professional athletes, television and movie stars, acclaimed musicians, legendary comedians and companies in a variety of industries in complex legal disputes
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