Experts explain how the legal arrangement works, what it’s usually for, and the ethics surrounding it
As the rallying cry of the #FreeBritney movement – which seeks to release the popstar from her decade-long conservatorship – this chorus of voices has reverberated across downtown Los Angeles several times over the last few years.
Although it was first heard in 2009 – when a Britney fan site started a campaign to free the singer from her legal bind – the phrase found a new (and seemingly more powerful) lease of life in April 2019, after the podcast, Britney’s Gram, investigated conspiracies about why Britney was on hiatus from social media. The singer’s online presence went dark in January that year, shortly after she cancelled her highly-anticipated Las Vegas residency; by March, it was reported that she’d checked herself into a mental health facility.
Britney (and an anonymous source) cited her father Jamie Spears’ ill health and admittance to a facility as the reason for calling off the show, but a source alleged on Britney’s Gram that Jamie cancelled the Las Vegas show after Britney refused to take her medication. From here, fans formed their own idea about the singer’s silence. Namely, that she was being held against her will – both at the facility and in her long-running conservatorship, the latter of which they claim is exploitative and strips her of her autonomy.
Aside from rumours, what is known is that Jamie has been in control of his daughter’s career and finances since 2008, when Britney was placed under a legal guardianship following her five-day admission to a psychiatric hospital. Aside from temporarily stepping down from the role in September 2019 due to “personal health reasons”, Jamie has been responsible for negotiating Britney’s business opportunities, restricting visitors, and controlling her mental health treatment for 13 years.
Now, as the #FreeBritney movement is gaining momentum – it was recently at the centre of a New York Times documentary – Jamie has spoken out to defend himself, asserting that people “have it so wrong”. He said last month (via his lawyer): “This is a story about a fiercely loyal, loving, and dedicated father who rescued his daughter from a life-threatening situation.”
Nobody outside of the Spears’ familial and legal circle can possibly know the true ins and outs of the conservatorship. But here, we speak to lawyers and their clients to find out what it’s like being under one of these arrangements, and how Britney’s experience aligns with theirs.
Conservatorships are imposed when someone is unable to manage their own life – typically due to physical or mental limitations, or old age. Family members are usually appointed as the guardian, and multiple people can be employed to manage the estate vs the individual.
Though Britney’s case has drawn widespread criticism, Maria Galante, an attorney at New York-based legal firm Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, tells Dazed that conservatorships are “positive in most cases”. “It’s expensive and requires legal assistance, so it’s not a decision made lightly,” she explains. “When clients come to my office asking me to protect their family member, I make sure they understand that the state will then be involved and will supervise every aspect of the guardianship.”
Galante says her clients are required to complete a training course, and have to report on the personal and financial aspects of the conservatorship every year. She explains that conservators also need to ask permission before making “big decisions”, such as relocating the conservatee or spending a large sum of their money. “While a guardian may resent the oversight, these safeguards are in place to protect the conservatee from abuse.”
If the conservatee wants to end the arrangement, they must “file a petition” to the court, says Galante, but the burden is then on them “to show the court why the guardianship is no longer needed”.
Kathleen Flaherty, the executive director at the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, tells Dazed: “Judges will want evidence that there has been a change since the conservator was appointed. Sometimes that’s shown by medical evidence.” Flaherty says that although “the standard of evidence is lower to end a conservatorship to begin one”, the conservatee still needs to present strong evidence in order to terminate the arrangement.
“It’s very easy to put someone in the system, but is extremely difficult to get them out” – Jennifer*, personal care assistant
Jennifer*, a former personal care assistant, asserts that “it’s very easy to put someone in the system, but is extremely difficult to get them out”. She adds: “I have worked with a few ‘high functioning’ clients that tried for years to get out of the system, and ended up just giving up.”
Clinical psychologist Amy Marschall tells Dazed that “it needs to be easier to get guardianship removed” in cases where the conservatee develops skills to become more independent. “An ethical guardian might notice these improvements and reset adjustments, but it’s a lot of power to give someone without insight.”
As of 2016, it was estimated that approximately 1.3 million adults and $50 billion worth of assets were under guardianship in the US. These numbers are particularly staggering when combined with a 2010 report by the US Government Accountability Office (via Forbes), which revealed hundreds of allegations of physical abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation by conservators.
Jennifer recalls a client she used to work with in the early 2010s. “Her father was ‘concerned’ about her ‘risky behaviour’ because she had bipolar disorder. Two of the behaviours listed were sex and underage drinking. He was very wealthy and got control of her when she was a teen; when I worked with her, she was in her 20s. She told me that her father was controlling and that she wished she had more independence, but nobody believed or trusted her. Sure she had a mental illness, but I have no doubt that she could have lived more independent than that. I don’t think it was ethical.”
Galante admits that “there are a lot of ethical considerations in any guardianship proceeding”, adding that, “mental health is, without a doubt, a big consideration”. Though, she says, “in my experience, the court tries to give the incapacitated person a fair opportunity to oppose the petition by appointing an attorney to represent that person”.
But, what if the person under guardianship – or threat of guardianship – isn’t aware of what’s going on? One of Galante’s clients, we’ll call him Paul*, found himself having to fight “tooth and nail” to stop a rehabilitation facility putting his father under conservatorship. His father ended up in the facility after his house was destroyed in 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, and he subsequently developed hospital-induced psychosis.
“Guardianships may be for an indefinite period; often until the death of the conservatee” – Maria Galante, attorney
“My father had what’s called Long Term Care Insurance, which foots your bills if you end up in this situation (a nursing home or a rehab facility) when you’re older,” Paul tells Dazed. “But my father didn’t have the information (because of the psychosis), so the rehabilitation facility decided to bring a guardianship proceeding. This would enable them to collect his pension and social security each month (as payment).”
Paul says the facility didn’t contact him to find out if he would like to be appointed as his father’s conservator, and instead went ahead with proceedings. “They catch people when they’re alone. You have a vulnerable elderly person, and you send someone up into the room and say, ‘We’re going to get control of your pension and your social security’, and if that happens, it’s very hard to get it reversed.” Luckily, Paul and his sister managed to evade the guardianship by finding their father’s insurance details and passing them onto the facility.
Obviously Paul’s father’s situation is very different to Britney’s, but it shows how conservatorships can be both implemented unnecessarily and abused by those enforcing them.
However, both Paul and Galante are skeptical of the #FreeBritney movement, suggesting that the campaign is based more on conspiracy than fact. “As far as it’s been published, it doesn’t appear that Britney has filed a petition to have the conservatorship terminated,” says Galante. “For now, she’s only opposed to having her father continue as a co-conservator, and supports the temporary independent conservator to continue.”
Galante also doesn’t appear to be concerned about the length of Britney’s conservatorship. “Guardianships may be for an indefinite period,” she tells Dazed, “often until the death of the conservatee.”
Marschall holds a different view, explaining that the type of conservatorship that Britney’s under is “usually reserved for much older adults with issues like Alzheimer’s”. She says it’s uncommon for these conservatorships to be removed because of the degenerative nature of the assumed condition.
“I also feel compelled to point out that I’ve never met someone with a legal guardian who was able to perform and tour like Britney has over the last decade,” adds Marschall. “Many people under conservatorship either work part-time with accommodations, or are unable to work for the same reasons that they need the conservator.”
“I’ve never met someone with a legal guardian who was able to perform and tour like Britney has over the last decade” – Amy Marschall, psychologist
Whether Britney wants to end her conservatorship or not, there’s clearly major ethical concerns with the process. “Conservatorships deny people of freedom and choice to exercise some of their rights,” says Flaherty. “We need more alternatives, like supported decision-making and advance directives, which are less restrictive and allow people to maximise their self-determination and autonomy.”
Jennifer is more critical of Britney’s case, which she says shows that “we are all just a few ‘behaviours’ away from having all of our civil liberties taken from us”. She continues: “Of course, that’s amplified by the intersections of oppression – women and people of colour are especially devastated by this.
“On its face, this is just a story about sexism, but it’s also a disability rights story. And it’s a story about how the two intersect, because sexism makes it easier to sell to a judge that a woman is crazy and should be put under lock and key.”
*Names have been changed