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Why does Britney Spears still have conservators? Court hearing skips burning question

Britney Spears
Britney Spears arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York on Aug. 28, 2016.
(Evan Agostini / Invision)

In Los Angeles probate court on Thursday, attorneys for Britney Spears and her father did not address the question Spears’ fervent fans want answered: Why does the pop star still remain under a court-appointed conservatorship?

The question, long asked by #FreeBritney advocates and dissected in FX and Hulu’s buzzy new documentary, “Framing Britney Spears,” appeared to have little bearing on Thursday’s court proceedings to determine the ins and outs of the “Toxic” singer’s day-to-day activities and finances.

Instead, the court-appointed attorney for the singer, Samuel Ingham III, and her father’s attorney, Vivian Lee Thoreen, quibbled over details of the arrangement: who would be allowed to make investments on behalf of the successful entertainer — her father, James “Jamie” Spears, or the fiduciary, Bessemer Trust, which was recently appointed as a coconservator of Spears’ nearly $58-million estate. In the end, the judge decided that it was Bessemer’s responsibility — a small victory for Spears, 39, to untangle herself from her father.

It’s the latest development in the beleaguered singer’s controversial 13-year-old conservatorship — also known as a legal guardianship — since her public unraveling in 2007.

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The Thursday status hearing, a basic procedural conference, is one of many that have taken place since the conservatorship was made permanent in 2008. But it’s the first to proceed amid ravenous and renewed interest looking at the bigger picture, fueled by “Framing Britney Spears,” which premiered last Friday.

“It is no secret that my client does not want her father as coconservator,” Ingham reiterated in the hearing, which was made available through the Los Angeles Superior Court website. “But we recognize that removal is a separate issue, and the court has declined to remove him.”

Spears has indicated that the conservatorship, which usually is used for elderly individuals who cannot care for themselves and to protect against fraud or undue influence, is “voluntary.” The conservatorship began as a temporary arrangement following her brief hospitalization in 2008 but became permanent shortly after that.

“They went back and forth, the same thing that they always argue about ... like that’s all they ever do while Britney’s paying for it,” said #FreeBritney organizer Leanne Simmons, who appeared in the documentary and reported back from the hearing during a virtual rally held simultaneously Thursday.

Jamie Spears, father of singer Britney Spears
Jamie Spears, father of singer Britney Spears, leaves the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in 2012.
(Nick Ut / Associated Press)

The feature-length New York Times documentary made clear that virtually no one on the outside — neither #FreeBritney advocates nor those who were once part of her inner circle — really know why the conservatorship remains for someone as young, successful and apparently high-functioning as Spears.

And those who do know aren’t talking. So speculation abounds in the documentary, which goes in-depth into the events that led up to the conservatorship. The doc is at its best when it scrutinizes those who profited and delighted in Spears’ 2007 mental health crisis and questions those who objectified and vilified the pop star throughout her career.

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A reckoning of sorts has already played out on social media, with many criticizing celebrities who appeared to be cruel to Spears back then. The #WeAreSorryBritney hashtag has emerged to collect video receipts and demand apologies from celebs and members of the media who mistreated the star.

More than 500 Britney Spears fans and legal advocates showed up on Zoom for Wednesday’s #FreeBritney rally amid the pop star’s latest conservatorship hearing.

In California, anyone can petition the court to end a conservatorship, including the conservatee, the conservator, a relative or friend of the conservatee or another interested person. The court may ask the court investigator to evaluate the case and the conservatee’s condition to see if the conservatorship should be ended.

But the success rate is not high, according to Jamie Spears’ lawyer Thoreen, who appeared briefly in the documentary before rejoining the elder Spears’ legal team. The singer has not appeared in court and — up until she revealed, in proceedings this past summer, that she wanted her father removed as sole conservator — rarely indicated her thoughts on the legal arrangement.

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“The Probate Court’s rulings today show the court’s confidence in our client Jamie Spears and Bessemer Trust to manage the conservatorship of Ms. Spears’ estate together,” Thoreen, of Holland & Knight LLP, said in a Thursday statement to The Times. “My client looks forward to working with Bessemer to continue an investment strategy in the best interests of his daughter.”

She added that Jamie Spears “has diligently and professionally carried out his duties as one of Britney’s conservators, and his love for his daughter and dedication to protecting her is clearly apparent to the court.”

On Tuesday, a veiled comment Spears posted on Instagram was widely believed to address the documentary and her shrouded probate-court developments. (This after her boyfriend, Sam Asghari, publicly rebuked her father for his role in their relationship.)

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“I’ll always love being on stage .... but I am taking the time to learn and be a normal person,” Spears wrote. “I love simply enjoying the basics of every day life !!!! 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.”

Justin Timberlake, Diane Sawyer, Shawn Mendes and Katy Perry are being criticized for their past behavior in light of FX’s new Britney Spears film.

The post was catnip for those who parse her Instagram account for coded messages about her welfare. (A podcast from comedians Tess Barker and Barbara Gray was dedicated to it and ultimately gave rise to the hashtag used by the movement.)

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“We are incredibly grateful for Framing Britney Spears and for the outpouring of love and interest Britney has been having,” #FreeBritney organizers told The Times Thursday. “We are happy to see that people are finally understanding that this conservatorship is rooted in deep injustice. It’s our duty, though, to point out that James Spears is not the only one to blame. There are several other people involved that should also be held accountable.”

The next hearings in the conservatorship case have been set for March 17 and April 27.

Times staff writer Christi Carras contributed to this report.


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