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Britney Spears ‘trauma’ explained: How does the US system of conservatorship work?

A conservatorship is a form of adult guardianship in the Unites States, which allows the conservator — mostly another family member — to be in charge of the conservatee.

Written by Suanshu Khurana , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: June 30, 2021 8:29:58 am
Britney Spears arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" on July 22, 2019. (AP photo)

Addressing an open court after 13 years of silence, American pop star and actor Britney Spears told a Los Angeles judge on Wednesday (June 23) that she had been forced to work and tour against her will by her father and her management, medicated against her wishes, “traumatised”, and not allowed to get married or have more children.

At the end of the intense 20-minute statement, she urged the court to end her conservatorship that allows her father to have statutory control over her money and civil liberties.

“I just want my life back… It’s enough… I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does,” she said in her video statement. She asked the court to end the conservatorship “without being evaluated”.

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For well over a decade, Britney Spears has been under the conservatorship of her father James ‘Jamie’ Parnell Spears — while also being a highly active pop sensation doing back-to-back tours, creating albums, striking deals with some of the biggest brands, and judging a reality show.

Over all this time, she has had no power over the wealth that she has generated, or over general decisions regarding what she should or should not do.

In 2019, she announced that she would not perform until her father was removed as her conservator.

Britney is now at the centre of an ongoing legal battle over conservatorship that encapsulates debates over individual freedoms, rights, and the law around them.

What is a conservatorship?

A conservatorship is a form of adult guardianship in the Unites States, which allows the conservator — mostly another family member — to be in charge of the conservatee.

A conservator is a person or institution that protects the conservatee, and is empowered by a court to do so. The person who seeks the conservatorship files a petition in court asking to be a conservator.

The concept of conservatorship is linked to the ability of individuals to take decisions about their lives on their own. Conservatorship is mostly intended to protect individuals who do not have the capacity to look after themselves, their interests, finances, living arrangements, medical care, and their general well-being, or are susceptible to fraud of some kind.

The court usually appoints a conservator in cases of old age, dementia, developmental disability, or physical or mental limitations. The essential idea is to keep the conservatee healthy, out of harm’s way, and to always act with their best interests in mind.

Britney Spears supporters march outside a court hearing concerning the pop singer’s conservatorship at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo)

How did Britney Spears land in a conservatorship?

Since 2008, Britney, who was then 27, has been under the legal conservatorship of her father, Jamie Spears. The senior Spears, whom Britney has now accused of guardianship abuse, had never been known to be a significant figure in the pop sensation’s life.

In January 2008, Britney was taken to hospital in the middle of the night for psychiatric evaluation after she refused to hand over her children to representatives of her ex-husband and the father of the children, Kevin Federline.

Police found her apparently under the influence of an unknown substance. Amid talk of possible drug addiction and mental health issues, Britney was admitted to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Centre in Los Angeles. She lost custody of her two children following this incident.

Soon afterward, Jamie Spears filed for temporary conservatorship over Britney, and was granted the right along with his lawyer Andrew Wallet.

After coming out of hospital, Britney consulted her own lawyers, not wanting her father to be the conservator. But the court decided that Britney was not capable of retaining and directing legal counsel on her own.

What was Britney’s life as a high-functioning conservatee?

Britney’s conservators got power over visitations, money, and security, apart from being able to make recording and TV deals for her.

Soon after the 2008 incident, Britney got back to work. She starred in the popular TV show ‘How I Met Your Mother’, and released her sixth studio album, ‘Circus’, months later.

The next few years were full of more albums, awards, tours, millions of dollars and residencies apart from being a judge on X-Factor.

However, the arrangement remained in place even after Britney had made a successful comeback.

In January 2018, Britney announced an “indefinite work hiatus”, cancelling a planned Las Vegas residency. In March 2019, Andrew Wallet resigned as co-conservator of her estate after 11 years. Britney admitted herself to a psychiatric facility the same month.

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How did the campaign to free her from her father’s conservatorship start?

Britney’s fans started the #FreeBritney movement to put pressure on the authorities to end her conservatorship. There was widespread dismay over the fact that a high-functioning individual had been legally deemed to be incapable of making her own decisions.

Everything around Britney’s conservatorship has been shrouded in non-disclosure agreements.

Soon after Britney’s 2019 admission into a psychiatric facility, Britney’s Gram, a fan podcast, put out a voicemail from a person who claimed to be a paralegal on Jamie Spears’ legal team, alleging that she was being held in the facility against her will, and that the Las Vegas residency had been cancelled by her father because she had refused to take her medication.

The voicemail went viral and gave rise to #FreeBritney, with support coming from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and celebrities like Paris Hilton and Miley Cyrus. Fans and supporters protested outside court buildings during the hearings.

In November 2020, the court-appointed Bessemer Trust as co-conservator of Britney’s estate alongside Jamie. Britney remains responsible for paying the legal fees of her own and her conservators’ lawyers. She paid a million dollars in legal fees last year.

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