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 June 23. By phone, Spears made a passionate case to be put back in charge of her own affairs. She also revealed some startling conditions that she's living under, including that she has been forced to keep an IUD in place, despite wanting to have another baby.
This story was originally published on Feb. 11 after the Britney Spears conservatorship documentary premiered. With the latest news, we thought you might need a refresher and are resurfacing this explainer.
If you have no idea what we mean by "conservatorship" and don't understand how an adult can be required to live under such conditions, you're not alone.
It's been a long and painful road for the 39-year-old pop star, a path outlined in detail by a documentary released earlier this year by The New York Times as part of its docuseries on Hulu and Fx.
"Framing Britney Spears" premiered in February and quickly became cultural zeitgeist fodder, generating thousands of tweets and think pieces.
The main takeaway? 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 superfan, you might not know that she's been in a legal conservatorship for the past 13 years.
A conservatorship is a court-ordered guardianship arrangement, 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 Spears' Fortune?
Yup, Britney's father, Jamie Spears, is her court-appointed conservator.
Interesting fact: Because Jamie controls 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, Spears paid $1.2 million in legal fees in 2019. From that sum, Jamie was paid $128,000 as a conservator. And that's just for one year.
A February 2021 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 financial 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 raises questions about the father-daughter relationship. Jamie Spears was not very 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 Jamie Spears' history with alcoholism.
How Did It Come To This?
Spears had a string of public mental health breakdowns in 2008, the year 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, Jodi Montgomery, stepped in as a temporary replacement.
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 Jamie as conservator. But the judge did grant Britney Spears' request to add a "corporate fiduciary," Bessemer Trust, as co-conservator.
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 pop star. 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."
Spears hasn't performed since 2018.
The Bigger Issue: How We Treat Female Pop Stars
It's never been a good time to be a female pop star, but it becomes clear very early on in the documentary that the late 90's/early 2000s were basically a cesspool of misogyny, where slut-shaming was normal.
Spears 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 paparazzi, starting when she was just 16, Spears was mocked as "crazy" and "out of control" for shaving her head during what we would now more respectfully refer to as a mental health crisis.
That's when her legal troubles started, as Spears 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?
The documentary includes some shocking clips of off-putting behavior, 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 Spears, telling a radio show that he had sex with her (at the time Spears said she had not slept with him). A Details cover later makes him look like a real stud for getting "in Britney's pants." New York 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 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 Spears, 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.
The media harassment was something the film's director, Samantha Stark, wanted to highlight. In an 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 Spears' 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:
- Britney Spears Conservatorship Case Heads Back to Court (NY Times)
- What is a Conservatorship? (NY Times)
- The betrayal of Britney Spears: how pop culture failed a superstar (The Guardian)
- When Will Justin Timberlake Be Held Accountable for His Misogyny? (VICE)
- Britney Spears hasn't fully controlled her life for years. Fans insist it's time to #FreeBritney (LA Times)
- Why Britney Spears's fans are convinced she's being held captive (VOX)
- Why Do Fans Want to #FreeBritney Spears? (The Cut)
Listen To An Interview:
Mental Health Resources
Steinberg Institute website, links to mental health resources and care throughout California
- Institute on Aging's 24/7 Friendship Line (especially for people who have disabilities or are over 60), 1-800-971-0016 or call 415-750-4138 to volunteer.
Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, 24/7 Access Line 1-800-854-7771, links to COVID-19 information.
The Crisis Text Line, Text "HOME" (741-741) to reach a trained crisis counselor.
California Psychological Association Find a Psychologist Locator
Psychology Today guide to therapist
If You Need Immediate Help
For more help:
Find 5 Action Steps for helping someone who may be suicidal, from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Six questions to ask to help assess the severity of someone's suicide risk, from the Columbia Lighthouse Project.
To prevent a future crisis, here's how to help someone make a safety plan.