Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023
Britney Spears: global pop superstar, Grammy award winner, songwriter, dancer, and … the face of the conservatorship reform movement? Ms. Spears can add a new line onto her prolific resume, as legal issues stemming from her decade-plus long conservatorship have shed a light on conservatorship abuse. Britney has subsequently fueled the push to reform conservatorship regulations that affect over an estimated 1.3 million adults in the United States.
Conservatorships are a form of court-appointed guardianship that grant licensed conservators or family members the ability to make substantial decisions on behalf of people who are deemed to be incapacitated or unable to manage their own affairs. A person may be deemed incapacitated for a variety of reasons, including mental illness, a disability, drug addiction, homelessness, or dementia. Conservators can control nearly all aspects of a conservatee’s estate, including one’s healthcare decisions and managing their finances, property, and assets.
While conservatorship laws vary by state, many conservatees lose nearly all personal autonomy. In some instances, conservatees retain elements of control over specific aspects of their lives. However, one right conservatees always maintain everywhere in the United States is the right to ask a judge to end their conservatorship.
Oops!…she did it again
While it may not be a new, game-changing pop album, Britney is once again changing the game by shining a light on conservatorship abuse. In 2008, Britney Spears underwent a very public mental health crisis. During this time, the court ordered that her father, Jamie Spears, would have control over Britney’s estate (including all financial affairs) and over her as a person. Jamie maintained both parts of this conservatorship until 2019 when he stepped down from being a conservator over Britney’s person but maintained his status as the conservator over her finances. At this time, a new conservator, Jodi Montgomery, who is Britney’s care manager, took over as the conservator of Britney’s person.
Between 2019 and 2020, Britney indicated through her lawyers that she no longer wanted her father involved in handling her or her career and that she was afraid of her father. She also stated that she would not return to the stage if he remained in control. This prompted the emergence of the #FreeBritney movement that attracted wide-spread internet attention during 2020, with her fans rallying in support of following Britney’s wishes and ending her conservatorship.
With public support behind her, Britney delivered an explosive testimony in 2021 that cited the abuse she endured, alleging that she was drugged, forced to perform against her will, and was prevented from having more children under the conservatorship. This ultimately led to her father announcing that he would be stepping down from the conservatorship but stating that he believed that the conservatorship itself should continue with another conservator taking over for him. Before Mr. Spears had the chance to follow through with his intentions to remove himself from his position of power, a court in Los Angeles suspended him as a conservator over Britney.
Surprisingly, Mr. Spears backtracked his earlier statement of wanting the conservatorship to continue by filing for the immediate termination of the conservatorship on November 1, 2021. This came just days before Britney’s next hearing on November 12, where the full termination of the conservatorship was considered and Britney was formally freed after 13 years. Britney’s conservatorship case has been incredibly well-documented in the media, even leading to a New York Times documentary titled Framing Britney Spears and a Netflix documentary titled Britney vs. Spears.
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
Britney’s public conservatorship battle has ushered conservatorship abuse into the spotlight. Allegations about abuse surrounding the system are all too common and date back decades. For example, many seniors have fallen under the control of for-profit conservators and have had their fates determined in court hearings that lasted mere minutes. This was illustrated in the 2021 Netflix film, I Care A Lot, where a for-profit conservator would take advantage of outdated state laws that allow courts to appoint “emergency guardians” without notice to either the person alleged to need a guardian or family or friend who might come to their defense. The conservator subsequently would place her victim in a nursing home, sell their house, and attempt to profit from it, given that she was controlling their finances.
While it makes for a good fictional plotline, the sad reality is that the storyline depicted in I Care A Lot is an example of conservatorship abuse that is all too common in the United States. Fortunately, given Britney’s media attention on the subject matter, lawmakers have responded to the international outcry and demanded that changes be made to protect the rights and due process of those in conservatorships. This past September, California governor Gavin Newsom signed into law the so-called “#FreeBritney bill”, which includes legislation designed to reform legal guardianship laws in the state of California to prevent those in similar situations as Britney from being exploited. The bill, which saw unanimous, bipartisan support, includes provisions that aim to close loopholes in a system that has lacked accountability and transparency. This bill is a huge step in the right direction for conservatorship reform in California and will hopefully encourage other states, and potentially the federal government, to follow suit.