Britney Spears' Conservatorship Case Is Complicated. Here's What You Need To Know.
The most recent hearing on Britney Spears's conservatorship went down on Feb. 11. If you have no idea what we mean by "conservatorship," you're not alone.
It's been a long and painful road leading up to the legal development for the 39-year-old popstar, a path outlined in detail by a new documentary produced by The New York Times as part of their docu-series on Hulu and Fx.
"Framing Britney Spears" premiered on Friday and quickly became cultural zeitgeist fodder, generating thousands of tweets and think pieces in rapid succession.
The main takeway? Many viewers felt renewed sympathy for Spears after watching the film, not only because of the bizarre legal loophole that allowed an adult woman's life and finances to be controlled by her father, but also because of the way she was consistently belittled by American society for the better part of a decade.
Here are the basics:
If you're not a Britney super fan and have been, quite understandably, distracted by the tsunami of other breaking news, you might not know that Britney Spears has been in a legal conservatorship for the past 13 years.
A conservatorship is a court-ordered guardianship arragement, made when someone is thought to be unable to care for him or herself.
If the conservatorship is granted, an adult, usually someone with a close relationship to the conservatee, like a family member or spouse, is given total control over that person's care, including physical needs like food, shelter and healthcare, financial affairs or both.
WAIT, SO SOMEONE ELSE IS CONTROLLING BRITNEY SPEAR'S FORTUNE?
Yup, Britney's father, Jamie Spears, is her court-appointed conservator.
Interesting fact: Because Jamie controlls Britney's finances, she is actually paying for her own legal team - and her father's legal team. She's also paying her father a salary to run the conservatorship.
According to Entertainment Tonight, in 2019, Spears paid $1.2 million in legal fees. From that sum, Jamie was paid $128,000 as a conservator. And that's just one year.
A recent NY Times story describes the arrangement:
The appointed conservators have control over everything from Spears's mental health care to where and when she can travel; the setup means that Spears's conservators are required to submit detailed accounts of her purchases to the court — even minor charges like $5 purchases at Sonic Drive-In or Target.
Jamie Spears has said that the conservatorship saved his daughter from finacial ruin and that his "sole motivation has been his unconditional love for his daughter and a fierce desire to protect her from those trying to take advantage of her."
But the documentary provides some healthy skepticism of the father-daughter relationship. Jamie Spears was not super involved in Spears early career; she actually had an older chaperone/assistant who took her to most of her auditions and accompanied her on tour when she was just starting out.
Some people interviewed in the film also mention Jaime Spears' history with alcoholism.
HOW DID IT COME TO THIS?
Spears had a string of public mental health breakdowns in 2008. That's when her father was granted conservatorship. But that was obviously a long time ago.
The singer didn't speak publicly about the conservatorship much, except in an MTV interview, where she said it was like being in jail.
In 2019, Jamie Spears took a step back, citing health issues. A professional conservator named Jodi Montgomery took his place, temporarily.
In August 2020, Spears's court-appointed lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, said in a court filing for the first time that his client "strongly opposed" her father as conservator. Ingham requested that the temporary conservator be made permanent, adding that Spears would prefer that her father step down.
In November 2020, a judge declined to remove Jaime as conservator. But the judge did add a "corporate fiduciary" called Bessemer Trust, as co-conservator, which Britney Spears herself requested.
In a remote hearing in December 2020, Montgomery's temporary role was extended to September 2021.
Meanwhile the #FreeBritney movement gained traction. Fans protested outside multiple hearings in downtown L.A. and even gathered on Zoom to show support for the popstar. They also protested in West Hollywood in April 2020.
Britney Spears is refusing to work until the conservatorship is lifted. At the November hearing, her lawyer said that she is "afraid of her father" and "will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career."
She hasn't performed since 2018.
WHAT HAPPENED AT THE MOST RECENT HEARING?
Jamie Spears objected to the November ruling that appointed Bessemer Trust as co-conservator. On Feb. 11, the judge overruled those objections, according to Variety.
Now Bessemer Trust and Jamie Spears will act as co-conservators, until further notice. Britney Spears' lawyer, Samuel Ingham, said that means the two parties will have "an equal division of responsibility, in the hopes that they [will] sit down and figure out together the best way to handle this complex estate for the benefit of my client."
The judge has set another hearing for March 17.
The #FreeBritney fans reacted positively to the developments in the case, calling Thursday's decision a small win. Their ultimate goal of course, is to support Britney's total freedom from the conservatorship... but they see less power for Jamie Spears is a step in the right direction.
WHAT DOES BRITNEY SAY?
Britney has not directly responded to the documentary, but on Tuesday, she tweeted a message about not judging other people's lives:
Each person has their story and their take on other people's stories !!!! We all have so many different bright beautiful lives 🌹🌸🌷🌼!!! Remember, no matter what we think we know about a person's life it is nothing compared to the actual person living behind the lens 📷✨ !!!!— Britney Spears (@britneyspears) February 9, 2021
Britney Spears' boyfriend Sam Asgahari hopped on Instagram stories after the documentary aired to say that Jaime Spears "is a total dick."
Her ex, Kevin Federline, has also given his two-cents.
Britney Spears herself did not respond to requests to participate in the documentary; neither did her mother or sister.
THE BIGGER ISSUE: HOW WE TREAT FEMALE POPSTARS
It's never been a good time to be a female popstar, but it becomes clear very early on in the documentary that the late 90's/early 2000's were basically a cesspool of misogyny, where slut-shaming was just a normal thing to do.
Britney was consistently slammed by tabloids, talk shows (Jay Leno and Barbara Walters, in particular), and the media writ large for being, in approximate order of appearance, too sexy, too virginal, too young, a bad example for teenage girls, a bad mother, a liar, a cheater (thanks, Justin Timberlake), and a crazy, unhinged party-girl.
After years of being followed by the paparazzi, starting when she was just 16, she was panned and mocked as "crazy" and "out of control" for shaving her head during what we would now more respecfully refer to as a mental health crisis.
That's when her legal troubles started, as Britney was deemed unfit to handle her own estate and put under a conservatorship, controlled by her father.
WHO WAS MEAN TO BRITNEY?
Spoiler alert: Most of us were. Think back to 2008. Did you buy a copy of US Weekly and laugh about Britney's shaved head with your friends?
That said, the documentary includes some shocking clips of off-putting beahvior, clips that a lot of us probably watched at the time and shrugged off.
A few highlights:
"Framing Britney Spears" features a clip of Justin Timberlake after the infamous breakup with Britney, telling a radio show that he had sex with her (at the time Britney said she had not slept with him). A Details cover later makes him look like a real stud for getting "in Britney's pants." NY Times culture critic Wesley Morris reflects on this in the documentary:
"The way that people treated her, to be very high school about it, was like she was the school slut and he was the quarterback."
Buzzfeed, being Buzzfeed, published an article titled, "20 Times Justin Timberlake Was Problematic But Wasn't Called Out On It." And a lot of people are also asking Timberlake to apologize or at the very least, be held accountable in some way for his behavior.
In a 2003 interview, Diane Sawyer channelled middle-aged moms everywhere, when she looked at Britney, with a voice full of gentle, rehearsed empathy and asked her what she did to cause Justin Timberlake "so much pain," insinuating that the breakup was solely her fault.
Sawyer also defended one woman's statement that she wanted to "shoot Britney" because "of the example for kids and how hard it is to be a parent." Some viewers are now calling on Sawyer to apologize.
Watched the Britney Spears doc last night. Legal questions aside, it's eye-opening. The documented societal treatment of this talented young woman was sick. Lots of people should come out and say what they regret.— Robert J. DeNault (@robertjdenault) February 7, 2021
Looking at you, Justin Timberlake, Jay Leno, and Diane Sawyer.
All of this media harrassment is something the film's director, Samantha Stark, wanted to highlight. In a recent interview with our newsroom's local news and culture show, Take Two, Stark explained:
"It's important to look back at that and realize what that did, and also ask the question, 'Why?' Like why did nobody say anything when a late night host is making fun of Britney? Why didn't we bat an eyelash when all of these things were going on?"
It's important to note that one late night host (ONE) refused to engage in making fun of Britney's mental health struggles. A clip of Craig Ferguson refusing to hop on the bandwagon is now going viral.
IF YOU MADE IT THIS FAR...
You know there should probably be several college-level courses on Britney Spears.
Because we are not a university, we have some suggested reading.
A DEEPER DIVE INTO #FREEBRITNEY:
- What is a Conservatorship? (NY Times)
Why Do Fans Want to #FreeBritney Spears? (The Cut)
LISTEN TO TAKE TWO'S INTERVIEW WITH THE "FRAMING BRITNEY SPEARS" DOCUMENTARY DIRECTOR:
4:45 p.m. : This article was updated with breaking news from the Feb. 11 court hearing.