Britney Spears’ conservatorship fight is complex. This Q&A will get you up to speed
Britney Spears’ 13-year-old conservatorship, with its recent battle over whether her father should have a role in it moving forward, has landed the pop star back in a spotlight that’s similar to the one she was facing in the 2000s. Not quite as brutal, but equally bright.
Latecomers to the Britney saga might find it daunting to get up to speed. For those folks, this Q&A offers the broad strokes about what’s happened in the 39-year-old singer’s life since 2006 when she was only 25 and trying to cope with the pressures of being one of the world’s most sought-after stars.
This Britney primer isn’t going to go through every legal twist and turn from the past 13 years — that would be a book, most likely — but it should help those folks who are just now paying attention.
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Meanwhile, those who think they know all the details can test their knowledge of the pop star’s situation.
What is a conservatorship and why are they instituted?
What California calls a probate conservatorship is known as a guardianship elsewhere. The goal of conservatorship, according to state law, is to create the “least restrictive alternative” to protect a person who is unable to provide properly for his or her personal needs or substantially unable to manage their financial resources or resist fraud or undue influence, per Los Angeles County. It is highly unusual, attorneys say, for a parent serving as conservator to profit from their role.
Who are the key players in the case now?
First and foremost, Britney Spears, a multi-platinum pop star and mother of two, is at the center of the drama. James “Jamie” Spears, the singer’s father, is conservator of her estate — on the money side — and was conservator of his daughter’s person until he had medical emergencies in 2019. Jodi Montgomery is the fiduciary who took over as conservator of Britney’s person, initially at Jamie’s request. Sam Ingham III was Britney’s court-appointed attorney for years and allegedly didn’t tell his client what she would have to do to end the conservatorship. Mathew Rosengart is her new attorney, whom she was allowed to select. Jamie is represented by Vivian Thoreen. Lynne Spears and singer Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney’s mother and sister, have had limited involvement with the conservatorship but have still been part of the conversation. Judge Brenda J. Penny was assigned to the case in 2016.
After years of complaints, Britney Spears’ new attorney has petitioned the Los Angeles Superior Court to replace her father as the conservator of her estate.
How did this start?
From 2006 to early 2008, Britney was in the brightest of public spotlights, relentlessly pursued by paparazzi and, ultimately, the mainstream media. She gave birth to two children, then filed for divorce from Kevin Federline. A beloved aunt died of cancer. She shaved her head and threatened a paparazzo with an umbrella. She did rehab but flopped publicly in a weird performance at the 2007 MTV Awards. There was a hit-and-run accident. Her fifth album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts and became one of her four multi-platinum releases. In September 2007 she was ordered to undergo random drug tests amid her custody battle, and the next month she lost custody of her sons to her ex for reasons that were never made public.
In December 2007, Britney turned 26.
The scene was set the night in early January 2008 when she failed to give son Jayden back to Federline’s representatives and police were called to her hilltop Studio City mansion. She wound up being taken to UCLA Medical Center for evaluation. Authorities were called again at the end of the month by the singer’s psychiatrist and wound up wheeling Britney out of her home on a gurney, saying she wasn’t making any sense. Once again, she was hospitalized for psychiatric evaluation, known in California as a 5150 hold. Her child visitation privileges were suspended the next day. Then Jamie petitioned L.A. County Superior Court for an emergency “temporary conservatorship” of his daughter and her affairs. The arrangement was made permanent by the end of the year and continues to this day.
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Where are her kids and who has custody?
In 2019, Britney and her ex-husband struck a new 30-70 custody deal regarding sons Jayden, 14, and Sean, 15, TMZ reported. The singer gets the “30” end of that agreement. That replaced a 50-50 deal that preceded it. Britney started out with no custody at all, however, immediately after the conservatorship went into effect.
Why the renewed interest from fans and the media?
In 2019, Britney canceled a planned Las Vegas residency, raising eyebrows among her fans as she refused to work (and in June, the star said on Instagram that she didn’t know if she would ever perform again). Then two high-profile events brought Britney’s situation to the forefront. In February, the documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” part of FX’s “The New York Times Presents” series, explored how the media mistreated the singer in the 2000s as well as the current state of her conservatorship battle.
Then in June, Britney addressed the court in an open session, stating firmly that she was “so angry it’s insane” and demanding that her father get out of her business and her life. She said the conservatorship was “abusive” and revealed, among other things, that she was being forced against her will to continue using an intrauterine device. Coverage of her testimony — and every move the key players have made since — has been hard to avoid.
Experts in probate law say the singer’s account is well within the realm of how conservatorship works. “You’re taking away a person’s right to make any decisions over themselves,” one said.
What does Britney want now?
In June, Britney said she wanted her father removed from her affairs and wanted to be released from the conservatorship without going through a mental evaluation. She wanted to be free to ride in a car with her boyfriend, among other small things. Since then, in court filings from Mathew Rosengart, she seems to have backed off a bit and is focusing first on getting Jamie removed and replaced by a fiduciary. Rosengart has hinted at future actions to end the conservatorship and possibly suing Jamie for abuse.
Has Britney asked for Jamie’s removal before?
Britney’s July 26 request to have Jamie removed as a conservator of her estate isn’t the first time she’s asked to have him cut loose. In 2019, citing his personal health — he had previously experienced a spontaneous ruptured colon that led to multiple surgeries — Jamie asked to step down temporarily as conservator of Britney’s person, ceding duties on a temporary basis to Jodi Montgomery. She remains in that position after Britney told the court in August 2020 that she was “strongly opposed” to having her father as her sole conservator. Jamie responded by requesting that Andrew Wallet — an attorney who had been Britney’s co-conservator from 2009 until he stepped down suddenly in March 2019 — be returned as co-conservator of his daughter’s person and her estate. In her August 2020 filing, Britney requested that Montgomery be made permanent conservator of her person and asked that a qualified corporate fiduciary be named to manage her estate. Jamie quietly withdrew the Wallet petition in October 2020.
What’s the deal with Jamie saying he would step down, but not immediately?
Jamie’s attorney, Vivian Thoreen, said in an Aug. 12 response that her client was “willing to step down” — but that sentence, which made headlines, continued, “when the time is right, but the transition needs to be orderly and include a resolution of matters pending before the Court.” The filing was actually a request to deny Britney’s July 26 petition asking for her father’s immediate removal as conservator of her estate. It contends that Jamie must remain in the job until a couple of accounting documents are finalized (a process that could take years) and says it wouldn’t be in Britney’s “best interest” to ditch her dad, despite her many complaints about him. But a legal expert told The Times that Jamie could easily be removed now and still be held responsible by the court to help finalize those reports and any other loose ends.
Britney Spears’ plight shows that conservatorship laws need reform to ensure that they don’t harm those they are supposed to protect.
What kind of relationship does Britney have with her family?
Father and daughter have reportedly had a complicated relationship for years. While the singer is threatening to sue Jamie Spears for abuse and wants him removed as conservator of her estate as soon as possible, she’s on better terms with her mother, Lynne Spears. A statement from Lynne in support of Britney’s wishes was included in a recent court filing. But Britney lashed out at sister Jamie Lynn Spears in July, saying in part, “How dare you make it public that NOW you CARE … did you put your hand out when I was drowning ???? Again … NO.” Brother Bryan Spears said in 2020 that he has stayed in regular touch with Britney, adding that the decision to start the conservatorship in 2008 was “a great thing for our family.” Britney has been in a relationship with a supportive boyfriend, Sam Asghari, since 2016. “In my opinion, James is a total d—,” Asghari said in his Instagram Story in February.
How much does Jamie earn as conservator and what is his background?
A recent court filing alleged that Jamie earns $16,000 per month as conservator and has certain expenses covered by the estate, in addition to a small percentage of the ginormous gross receipts from his daughter’s tours, merchandise sales and her Las Vegas residency, the latter of which grossed a reported $140 million on its own. He is also a director and/or officer with several Britney-related corporations. Prior to becoming conservator, Jamie worked in construction. A recovering alcoholic, he went to rehab in 2004. He and Lynne filed for bankruptcy once, in 1998. He is, however, often credited with “saving” Britney after her breakdown.
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When did #FreeBritney get involved?
The movement took shape in earnest in April 2019 after an episode of the podcast “Britney’s Gram” — which was dedicated to interpreting the singer’s Instagram account — shared a leaked voicemail from someone who claimed to be a paralegal at the law firm handling Britney’s conservatorship. The person alleged abusive conditions and said the conservatorship was supposed to end in 2009. That prompted fans to rally to #FreeBritney from a psychiatric facility she was in at the time. Participants now gather near the courthouse in downtown L.A. whenever there’s a hearing, but the effort has also grown into a global movement: Fans in all parts of the world are trying to draw attention to her case via social media and to bring attention to the overall need for conservatorship reform.
Should the court ‘free’ Britney?
Britney’s medical records and psychiatric evaluations have been sealed, making it impossible for outsiders to know the status of her mental health and medication use. Those calling for Britney’s freedom believe she’s capable of caring for herself.
What kinds of public comments has Britney made about her situation?
The singer’s Instagram account has loosened up in recent weeks, as evidenced by two posts from July. After being allowed to hire Rosengart, she posted, “New with real representation today ... I feel GRATITUDE and BLESSED !!!! Thank you to my fans who are supporting me. You have no idea what it means to me be supported by such awesome fans !!!! God bless you all ... #FreeBritney.” She also included a middle-finger emoji, possibly aimed those who’ve been in control of her life. A few days later she posted a scathing message to her “so-called support system” and slammed sister Jamie Lynn for a 2017 tribute performance. “This conservatorship killed my dreams ... so all I have is hope and hope is the only thing in this world that is very hard to kill ... yet people still try,” Britney wrote.
How might things be different if Britney had her breakdown today?
The rules of the celebrity game have changed a lot since the late 2000s. Some things are different that might have eased the pressure Britney was under in the years right before the conservatorship. For one, the “No Kids Policy” championed by Jennifer Garner and others and accepted by major publications cut demand for photos of celebrities’ children. Plus the state of California made it a misdemeanor for paparazzi to take photos of celebrity children in a harassing manner.
Also, celebrities including Chrissy Teigen and Hayden Panettiere have gone public with their post-partum depression struggles in recent years, earning support from the public. Britney — who some believe suffered from PPD — wasn’t cut a break by the public after giving birth to her kids. Star athletes Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka recently admitted mental health concerns about their performances and their media interactions and, despite criticisms, got more sympathy than might have been expressed 13 years ago.
Staff writers Yvonne Villarreal and Nardine Saad contributed to this report.
10:31 a.m. Aug. 20, 2021: This story has been updated to include additional information about Jamie Spears’ Aug. 12 court filing.
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