For more than a decade, some of Britney Spears’s most devoted fans feared that she was locked up against her will under a court-ordered conservatorship, even going as far to accuse her father, James “Jamie” Spears, of drugging her to take control. In response, fans launched #FreeBritney, a viral social media campaign, aimed at having Britney’s conservatorship investigated and terminated. A Change.org petition dedicated to the #FreeBritney movement amassed over 100,000 signatures. Meanwhile, a recent New York Times article reveals that Britney’s attorney filed papers informing the Los Angeles County Superior Court that Britney is now “strongly opposed” to the conservatorship. This serves as a reminder that all conservatees have the power to challenge their conservatorships.
The Conservatorship of Britney Spears
To briefly recap one of our previous posts, Britney experienced mental health and substance abuse issues at the peak of her stardom. Concerned about her situation, Spears’ father petitioned the court in Los Angeles to become her conservator. A conservatorship is a legal relationship between a person (the conservator) and an individual (the conservatee) who is unable to manage his or her personal needs and/or financial affairs. Under Probate Code section 1801, a conservator “of the person” manages the care and personal needs of the conservatee, while a conservator “of the estate” controls the financial affairs of the conservatee.
In 2008, Jamie was appointed conservator of Britney’s person, and Jamie and attorney Andrew Wallet were appointed co-conservators of her estate. And this is how things have remained until Jamie recently stepped down and was replaced by a professional conservator.
The #FreeBritney Movement
#FreeBritney fans have been adamant that Britney’s conservators have prolonged the conservatorship so they can continue to collect money and control nearly every aspect of Britney’s life, such as restricting her ability to drive and vote, limiting her finances, and controlling her spending habits and communications.
Indeed, maintaining a conservatorship over an individual with a high net worth may prove to be quite lucrative. A New York Times article estimated that Jamie has been paid $130,000 annually for his conservatorship services while managing Britney’s personal needs and wealth, and millions more have been paid to the conservatorship attorneys. In response to the #FreeBritney movement, Jamie has retorted that the #FreeBritney movement is a “joke” because he has “to report every nickel and dime spent to the court every year. How the hell would I steal something?” So, what can conservatees do to free themselves from an unwanted conservatorship?
Termination or Modification of Conservatorship
If a conservatee recovers the ability to manage his or her affairs, he/she can petition the court to terminate the conservatorship. Under Probate Code section 1861(b), the petition must state facts showing that the conservatorship is no longer required or that the grounds for establishing the conservatorship no longer exist. For instance, if Britney herself filed a petition to terminate the conservatorship of her person, she would have to show that she is able to care for herself, such as by procuring food, shelter, and clothing. Britney may show she is able to get herself medical attention and is of sound mind to make her own medical decisions.
To end the conservatorship of her estate, Britney may show that she can reliably enter into agreements, balance her own checkbook, pay her bills on time, diversify her assets, and be reasonably frugal with her money. Remember, for termination, the ultimate goal is to show that the conservatorship is no longer needed. Conservatees need not worry if they don’t have an attorney. Under Probate Code section 1852, the court is required to appoint one.
A conservatorship of the estate is not all or nothing. In the alternative to terminating (ending) the conservatorship, a conservatee may seek more control over his or her financial affairs by filing a petition under Probate Code sections 1873 and 1874, and the court has flexibility to give the conservatee varying levels of control. Of course, with respect to managing her music portfolio, she may not need any conservatorship of her estate.
Removal of the Conservator
What if the court determines a conservatorship is still in Britney’s best interest? Can conservatees like Britney challenge their conservators if they have become abusive? The answer is yes. Similar to termination, Britney may petition the court to remove a conservator. There are several statutory bases for removal based on the conservator’s conduct under Probate Code section 2650, including a failure to use ordinary care and diligence in managing the estate, gross immorality, and having an interest adverse to the conservatee.
The overarching theme of section 2650 is to ensure that the conservator prioritizes the interests of the conservatee. The conservator serves as a fiduciary, and owes the conservatee a duty of good faith under Probate Code section 2101. If conservatees like Britney feel that their conservators are failing to exercise care and diligence in the conservatees’ affairs, perhaps mismanaging or stealing money, the conservatees may seek to remove their conservators. The court will then appoint a successor conservator.
Who Else May Challenge a Conservatorship?
Under the Probate Code, a number of people can ask the probate court to terminate a conservatorship or remove the conservator. The conservator, conservatee, spouse or domestic partner, any relative or friend, or any other interested party may file a petition for termination under Probate Code section 1861(a) or a petition for removal under Probate Code section 2651.
This is good news for #FreeBritney fans. If Britney had not recently filed papers with the court, her close friends and relatives had the power to do so. Fans would be wise to refrain from trying to get involved in the court proceedings. Under Probate Code section 1970(b), the court may label an intermeddling fan as a “vexatious litigant” if the court finds that the petition is unmeritorious or, more plainly, “intended to harass or annoy the conservator.”
Conservatorships May Not Be Forever
The #FreeBritney movement is not “Crazy” in that conservatees have the right to seek outright termination of a conservatorship if it is no longer required or modification if the conservatee is “Overprotected.” Alternatively, conservatees may seek removal of conservators by showing that they have caused serious issues. These mechanisms in the Probate Code allow conservatees and their advocates to challenge conservatorships that needlessly deprive people of their civil liberties or have become abusive.
UPDATED (February 12, 2021): On the heels of Britney Spears filing a petition with a California state court in 2020 to remove her father from the conservatorship and to place a financial institution as the sole conservator over her estate, instead, Judge Brenda Penny of the Los Angeles County Superior Court in California held that “the singer’s father and a newly-appointed financial trust company must work together to develop an investment plan that will benefit Spears,” as reported by Reuters. The latest court date resulted in “little progress on the increasingly controversial issue of how much longer the pop star will have her personal and business affairs controlled by other people.”
Wiemond Wu is an associate at Downey Brand LLP, where his practice focuses on delivering clients with clever, cost-effective, and concrete solutions in a wide range of litigation disputes.