Britney Spears Is Headed To Court To Address Her Conservatorship. Here's What To Know

Jun 23, 2021
Originally published on June 23, 2021 2:28 pm

Pop star Britney Spears hasn't been in charge of her personal life or her finances for 13 years — that's how long she has been in a court-dictated legal arrangement called a conservatorship.

But on Wednesday, the artist will be speaking directly, albeit from a remote location, to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge about her situation. What exactly she intends to say in her appearance and what her goals might be are anyone's guess.

Before then, here's a quick look at what conservatorships are and why they exist, the specifics of Spears' arrangements, the #FreeBritney movement and what Spears and others have said publicly — and privately — about her conservatorship.

What is a conservatorship, and why does one get put in place?

Typically, legal and financial conservatorships are arranged for people who are unable to make their own decisions in their own best self-interest, such as in the case of someone with dementia or another kind of cognitive impairment.

Why does Britney Spears have one?

The exact reasons that the 39-year-old Spears is under a conservatorship have not been publicly disclosed. She lost her autonomy 13 years ago, in 2008, after apparently suffering a mental health crisis.

During the time that Spears has lived under this arrangement, though, she has released four albums (two of which, 2008's Circus and 2011's Femme Fatale, achieved platinum sales); appeared as a judge on both The X Factor and American Idol; and had a four-year residency in Las Vegas that reportedly grossed close to $138 million. Those accomplishments don't exactly line up with the typical profile of someone unable to look after themselves.

What does Spears' conservatorship cover?

Essentially, it controls all the major aspects of Spears' life, including decisions regarding her financial, medical and personal well-being. The conservators also oversee visitation arrangements with her two teenage sons, who are under the full custody of her ex-husband, Kevin Federline.

According to Forbes, Spears' current net worth is around $60 million.

Who controls Spears' conservatorship?

Up until recently, both the financial and personal arms of the conservatorship were controlled by Spears' father, Jamie Spears.

In 2020, her lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, stated in a filing that Spears "strongly opposed" her father as conservator and that she refused to perform if he remained in charge of her career. Spears asked the court for her father to be suspended from his role as conservator. (He had temporarily stepped away in 2019 for health reasons.)

In February, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny overruled an objection from Jamie Spears to having a third party help look after his daughter's financial affairs. A wealth-management company, Bessemer Trust, is now a co-conservator for the financial side of Spears' situation. But Jamie Spears is still the main conservator for all other aspects of Spears' arrangement.

Why is Spears planning to talk to the court now?

Back in April, Spears' legal team asked Penny to allow her to speak to the court directly about the conservatorship, and they agreed that June 23 would be the date for this to happen. At the time, Ingham did not disclose why Spears wants to speak or what she intends to say.

Has Spears ever asked for the conservatorship to end?

Up until now, Spears has never voiced a desire for the conservatorship to be removed completely — at least not publicly. In a court filing, she has stated that the conservatorship "rescued her from a collapse, exploitation by predatory individuals and financial ruin" and allowed her to "regain her position as a world class entertainer."

But on Tuesday afternoon, The New York Times reported that it had obtained confidential court records that purport to show that Spears has opposed the conservatorship privately for years. The Times quoted a 2016 report from a court investigator assigned to Spears' case, in which the investigator wrote that Spears told her that the conservatorship had "become an oppressive and controlling tool against her" and that she wanted the arrangement to end quickly.

According to the Times, Spears told the court in 2019 that the conservatorship had forced her into a stay at a mental health facility, as well as into making public performances against her will. The article further reported that the conservatorship had dictated Spears' friendships, her dating life and her spending habits, even preventing her from refinishing kitchen cabinets according to her taste.

As early as 2014, the article states, Spears wanted to consider removing her father from his prime role in the conservatorship, citing his reportedly heavy drinking.

Does Spears herself support the #FreeBritney movement?

Certain Spears fans have organized themselves into a grassroots movement — #FreeBritney — to help Spears regain autonomy over her life. The dynamics between Spears and her dedicated #FreeBritney fans are murky, as are her various declarations on social media.

In a court filing last September, her lawyer, Ingham, wrote: "At this point in her life when she is trying to regain some measure of personal autonomy, Britney welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans."

On the other hand, Spears to date has never publicly asked to be released from the conservatorship and regain her autonomy — which is the main goal of #FreeBritney.

A very sympathetic New York Times television documentary, Framing Britney Spears, debuted on FX in February. The project reckons with the way the media, comedians and the music industry itself characterized Spears during her ascent to global fame and during her later, very public struggles — and it also profiles some #FreeBritney activists.

After it aired, Spears wrote on Instagram: "My life has always been very speculated [sic] ... watched ... and judged really my whole life !!! ... I didn't watch the documentary but from what I did see of it I was embarrassed by the light they put me in ... I cried for two weeks and well .... I still cry sometimes !!!!"

Some #FreeBritney supporters don't believe Spears writes her own Instagram messages, leaving them to speculate about the pop star's true feelings. But Spears reportedly told TMZ in April that she writes her own captions.

What's next for Britney Spears?

Unclear. In an Instagram video posted last week, a visibly jittery Spears professed to be answering fans' most burning questions, including her shoe size and her favorite business trip (answer: "a trip to Italy [to] Donatella Versace. ... She fined [sic] and dined us").

The last question Spears put forward to herself was a crucial one: Would she ever return to the stage again?

"I have no idea," she said. "I'm having fun right now. I'm in transition in my life, and I'm enjoying myself."

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For the past 13 years, Britney Spears has not been in charge of her money or some basic aspects of her own life. She's in a court-mandated arrangement called a conservatorship that essentially leaves her in the care of her father. This afternoon, Britney will appear remotely at a Los Angeles Superior Court hearing to speak directly to the judge in her case. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has been following this story. Good morning, Anastasia.


KING: How do people typically end up in conservatorships?

TSIOULCAS: Well, typically, legal and financial conservatorships are arranged for people who aren't able to make decisions in their own best self-interest, so we're talking about situations, for example, in the case of elderly people or people with some kind of cognitive impairment.

KING: So why does a 39-year-old pop star have one of these arrangements?

TSIOULCAS: Well, Britney Spears' was put into place back in 2008 after she had a very public mental health crisis. This conservatorship controls all the major aspects of Spears' life, including decisions related to her financial, medical and personal well-being. And the conservatorship also oversees visitation arrangements with her two teenage sons, who are under the full custody of her ex-husband, Kevin Federline.

KING: But in the meantime, she has been working, right? She's out there all the time.

TSIOULCAS: Totally. She's released four albums; two of them went platinum. She also appeared as a judge on two television shows, "The X Factor" and "American Idol." And she also had a four-year concert residency in Las Vegas. And all of that doesn't exactly line up with the more typical profile of someone unable to look after themselves.

KING: And one of the interesting details here is that it is not a licensed professional who is in charge of the conservatorship; it's her father.

TSIOULCAS: Yeah, it's her dad, Jamie Spears, and that's already been a point of contention. Last fall, Britney asked for a separate wealth management company to co-run the financial side of things. Her dad objected to that in court, but the judge allowed it to move forward.

KING: Now, in the meantime, some of Britney's fans have formed a kind of protest movement, saying, essentially, this wildly successful woman, mother of two, is being held against her will, treated like she's a child. Has she responded to them or to that movement?

TSIOULCAS: Well, it's kind of murky. Earlier this year, there was a New York Times television documentary called "Framing Britney Spears" that was very sympathetic to her and to the Free Britney activists. But a couple of weeks later, Spears purportedly wrote a message on her Instagram account that said that she found the documentary really embarrassing and hurtful. Some Britney fans suspected that she didn't actually write that message herself.

KING: Do you think that might be why she wants to speak to the court directly today - so she can get a message out there in kind of a professional environment, and it's her own message?

TSIOULCAS: Possibly. It's a real possibility. And it's not just a professional message; it's a legal message, right?

KING: Yeah.

TSIOULCAS: And she may want to contest the conservatorship altogether, and I think that's part of the reason why people are looking at this so very closely.

KING: Aside from her celebrity, why do you think people are so interested in this case?

TSIOULCAS: Well, I think it points to some larger issues about control and autonomy, Noel. Thirteen years is a very long time for a grown, working woman to cede complete control over her life and give it to other people, whether they're family or not, despite, you know, complications of family dynamics or not. And apart from the particulars of her situation, I think it opens up questions about whether a mental health situation should dictate the course of one's life.

KING: OK, NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas. Thank you.

TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.