MAKING SENSE OF THE BRITNEY SPEARS CONSERVATORSHIP AND #FREEBRITNEY
The Britney Spears conservatorship saga has gone through many twists and turns since it started in 2008. Could it be coming to an end soon?
We recently wrote that Britney’s conservatorship was about to reach a crossroads, and it certainly has. According to wide-spread reports, including by TMZ, Britney Spears appeared in probate court on May 10, 2019 to ask the judge overseeing her conservatorship to give her more freedom and ease restrictions that have prevented her from making even basic decisions about her own life, for more than 11 years. In other words, Britney has apparently joined the #FreeBritney movement and is reportedly exploring asking the court to end the conservatorship entirely.
What is the #FreeBritney movement? As Rolling Stone detailed, comedians and Britney-fans, Tess Barker and Barbara Grey, started the movement through their podcast, Britney’s Gram, and social media. They recently aired a clandestine voice message from someone who claimed to have worked for a law firm involved in the conservatorship. The “Deep Throat” said that Britney had been admitted to a mental health treatment facility against her will, after refusing to resume taking medication for her condition. He also said that Britney’s father, conservator Jamie Spears, pulled the plug on her new Las Vegas show because of it.
This report, amid other concerns of #FreeBritney supporters, led to renewed social media support to try to “save” Britney. Britney herself tried to squash the rumors by posting on Instagram that she was doing what was best for herself and warning fans not to believe everything they read and heard.
But Britney took a different stance during last Friday’s court hearing. That court hearing was closed to the public, at the request of Britney’s court-appointed advocate, who asked the judge to preserve Britney’s privacy because issues such as her medical condition and her two sons would be discussed. But TMZ still reported that Britney Spears told the judge that her father admitted her to the treatment facility, and forced her to take drugs, against her will.
Many media outlets have reported that Britney’s mother, Lynne Spears, appeared at the court hearing with an attorney and supported her daughter, asking to be kept informed of Britney’s medical condition. She also recently liked social media postings by fans that also suggested Britney’s conservatorship should end and that she may have been held against her will.
In California, a conservator appointed in probate court does not have legal authority to force a conservatee, like Britney Spears, to receive mental health treatment or psychiatric medications. Another type of conservatorship, called an LPS Conservatorship, does allow for this authority, but unlike traditional conservatorships, these court proceedings can only be initiated by certain government agencies and automatically expire after one year.
In this case, Jamie Spears did not have legal authority to force Britney into treatment or to take psychiatric medications. But that doesn’t mean that Britney’s reported claim that she was held against her will is wrong. Rather, because Jamie has so much control over Britney’s life through the conservatorship – including decisions like whether to get married, to perform or live in Las Vegas, or even if she can drive a car – he easily could have refused to grant consent for Britney to do any number of things unless she agreed to his request to enter the mental health treatment facility.
In other words, Jamie could have indirectly forced her into treatment even if he could not explicitly sign her in against her will. But, even if Jamie Spears did so, he may have done it out of an earnest believe that Britney needed the treatment. TMZ previously reported that Britney was not doing well and her old course of medications stopped working, necessitating heightened treatment.
Did Jamie Spears Force Britney into Treatment?
Also, it’s not clear if Jamie Spears really did force Britney into inpatient treatment. The same TMZ article cited an unnamed insider who said that Jamie was not the one who pushed Britney into the treatment facility. Rather, he was reportedly against the idea, but Britney wanted to check herself in. The true story remains murky.
So what will happen next?
The judge did not modify the conservatorship — at least not yet — but she did order a 730 evaluation. A 730 evaluation refers to California Court Rule 730, which authorizes courts to appoint independent experts to investigate, report to the court, and to testify about any issue the court wants. Some media outlets have reported that these are rare outside of child custody cases, but that is not really the case. Courts in every state routinely use court-appointed experts to evaluate people under a guardianship or conservatorship, or who may be subject to one, to help judges determine if there is truly a need for such a restrictive measure.
Conservatorships, as they are called in California (but called guardianships in most other states), are among the harshest remedies in the American legal system. They are only to be used when no lesser restrictive alternative will suffice.
Conservatorships and guardianships are most frequently used for aging adults who suffer from dementia or other age-related mental disorders. They are less common for those suffering from mental illness. Indeed, studies estimate that nearly one in five adults Americans suffer from some type of mental illness, and between 4.5% and 6% of adults in our country experience severe mental illness. But only a fraction of these need the oversight of a court-appointed guardian or conservator.
In California, the legal test for conservatorship is very high. The person must be unable to provide for basic needs, like food, clothing and shelter, or be incapable of making medical decisions. For financial decisions, the requirement is a person being unable to manage financial affairs or resist undue influence.
Does Britney Still Meet The Legal Test?
Does Britney still meet this legal test, after 11 years? Her many accomplishments in that time frame suggest otherwise, including serving as a judge and mentor on the former TV show, X Factor, and performing in her own Las Vegas show for four years, which grossed a reported $138 million.
At least on the surface, these accomplishments alone make it very odd that Britney remains under conservatorship, unable to provide even for basic needs like food and shelter. But could there more to the story than has been publicly revealed?
The details surrounding Britney’s mental health have been kept private. She is clearly suffering from some sort of mental illness or condition, but we don’t what it is, how hard it is treat, and what will happen without the control of a conservator. Is Britney’s affliction so severe that, without the drastic remedy of conservatorship, her life will spiral out of control as it did in 2007 and 2008? Or, as her mother recently said to paparazzi, is Britney doing “wonderful”? Has she progressed enough to be ready to at least try taking control over some aspects of her own life?
Right now, not even the judge has the answers. That is why she ordered the 730 evaluation. Once that is complete, an expert, or team of experts — which will undoubtedly include at least one doctor — will make a recommendation and report to the judge. The judge may also permit the experts to be examined under oath in court. Only then will the judge have enough information about Britney’s current condition to know if Britney Spears is ready to be free.
And if Britney is found to be ready, it does not mean that changes will happen all at once. Rather, California law – like other states – permits less-restrictive alternatives than full conservatorship. For example, Britney could decide where to live, work, and whom to marry, but not be permitted to manage her own finances or move out of state. The law not only encourages, but requires, that conservatorships be the least restrictive alternative possible.
This leads us to perhaps the biggest factor that casts a shadow over Britney Spear’s conservatorship: The money. Britney reportedly earned $672 million during her career up until 2016, according to MoneyNation.com. Yet her annual conservatorship filings reported her net worth as of early 2018 to be $56 million, only slightly above her reported 2007 net worth, of $54 million. With gross earnings soaring during her Vegas run, especially considering her lucrative concerts, endorsements and merchandising, some have questioned whether Britney should be worth more by now.
Regardless of those questions, one clear fact remains – Britney Spears’ talent, image, and popularity amount to big, big business. Some level of control over her will likely remain for the foreseeable future, if for nothing else than to help her manage the money. There is too much, financially, at stake for this to aspect to change when the judge makes her decision, expected to be in September.
But that doesn’t mean that Britney can’t be free from conservatorship for many important decisions in her life, and perhaps, eventually, all of them. But she’ll have to first be given the right to prove herself by making the basic decisions. And if Britney Spears can show that’s she capable of handling responsibility without the help of a conservator for some decisions, then more and more autonomy should follow.
As #FreeBritney supporters ask, after 11 years, isn’t it time for Britney Spears to be given the chance to at least try making some decisions? That will depend on what the results of the upcoming evaluation and report will be.
Britney fans should prepare themselves that the evaluation may not come out the way they hope. TMZ just released another report, this time with Britney Spears’ manager going on the record. He questions whether Britney will ever work again and confirmed that her medications stopped working. That, combined with Britney being distraught over her father’s recent illness, ended the recent Las Vegas residency – perhaps permanently.
We will learn more in September. The only thing certain for now is that no one can accurately predict what will happen then.
Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, television hosts and keynote speakers. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn. For all the latest celebrity legal news, be sure to check out their blog.
[photo credit: Wikipedia]