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This article is written by Gursimran Kaur Bakshi, a student at the National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi. The article explains Britney Spears’ conservatorship and the laws that regulate it. 

Introduction 

“I will tell them what I like, what I want, and what I don’t

But every time I do, I stand corrected, 

Things that I have been told

I cannot believe that I hear about the world

I realise I am overprotected.”

You might know these lyrics. You might have also listened to this song many times. But will you be able to listen to this song, the same as before, if I tell you Britney has been imprisoned for almost 13 years, by her father, in the name of conservatorship? And she does not even have basic bodily rights over herself? I do not think you will ever be able to hear her music the same again.  

This is a song called Overprotected by Britney Spears. These lyrics suddenly make somewhat more sense to all of us than it has been ever before. Britney’s situation cannot be overestimated or underestimated. It needs to be rightly estimated and for this, you need to read this article further. 

But before reading it, here is a brief history of how Britney Spears is. This is for all those who want to understand the controversy but may be unaware of the person who is concerned here. Everyone should be able to read about her situation, even if they are not interested in the music she makes.  

About Britney Spears

Britney Spears is an American singer, songwriter, dancer, and actress. In the 1990s, she was known as the ‘princess of pop’ who influenced the millennial generation with some of her hit songs like baby one more time, toxic, and criminal to name a few. She was born and brought up like any other normal girl. She was good at singing and dancing and these qualities and her charisma helped her to rise to fame quickly, becoming a singing sensation at the age of 16 years. However, fame and money at an early age brought drug addiction and eventually dependency on her family. She became famous for all the wrong reasons. This led to the involvement of many people in her life, who wanted to take control of her life because she was earning well and money seems to be the only factor that mattered. To them, it did not matter that her mental health was deteriorating because she had started to show erratic behaviour and that all she needed was proper medication and not policing. Throughout these years, the media has also not been kind to her for they followed her consistently and invaded her privacy by capturing all the good, bad, and ugly moments of her life. This also severely impacted her mental health. 

All that went wrong with Britney Spears

Britney has been living in the conservatorship of a person and estate for almost thirteen years in California with her father James Parnell Spears as her conservator. A conservatorship is an arrangement where the responsibility of an incapacitated adult is given to the parents, relatives, or anyone who can take personal care or manage the financial matters of the adult. Provided that the adult must be suffering from severe physical or mental illness or recovering from severe accidents. 

It is euphemistically known as adult guardianship in many states in the US. You might feel that there is nothing wrong with this arrangement since the person is so seriously incapacitated and this seems necessary for their survival. However, conservatorship limits the personal, economic and legal rights of the person. It means there is absolutely no freedom available to the person to make independent decisions or rather any decision. That is exactly what happened in Britney’s case. She was exploited and exhausted mentally and physically for the last thirteen years until she decided to call 911 to report herself as the victim of conservatorship abuse.   

How did Britney end up in conservatorship? 

Britney has been in conservatorship since 2008 after she refused to hand over her children to her ex-husband. She married Kevin Federline in 2004 and they had two sons out of wedlock before their marriage ended up in a chaotic mess. Britney sought divorce from Kevin after two years of marriage in 2006, citing irreconcilable reasons. She was then granted temporary custody of her two sons.

Soon after her divorce, she showed strange behaviour such as driving the car away from the paparazzi with her infant child sitting on her lap, shaving off her hair, and attacking the media with her umbrella. Although the media claims that these events showed that she has lost her mental stability, this could simply have been a side-effect of postpartum depression. Undoubtedly, there is no denying that driving the car with an infant child on her lap is sheer carelessness. But there is also no denying the fact that the media kept on scrutinising each and every behaviour of her just to prove her a lunatic, even if she was not.

With these incidents, Kevin was granted the physical custody of both sons. During this time, she was also found to be under the influence of a controlled substance and was also suffering from severe mental health issues. Due to all this, she lost the visitation rights to her children and also their permanent custody. She underwent psychiatric treatment at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Centre in Los Angeles during that time. 

At the age of 27 years, she was made a conservatee under the emergency guardianship of her father along with his lawyer Andrew Wallet. This arrangement was supposed to be temporary but went on to become permanent. Strangely, Andrew Wallet resigned in 2019 due to reasons not disclosed to the public. Later, Britney challenged the sole conservatorship of her father over her $50 million assets in August 2020, citing various reasons like she is afraid of him and that there is too much unhealthy control that he enjoys.

Britney wanted the wealth management firm, the Bessemer Trust, to be appointed as the sole conservator replacing her father. However, the court declined in a hearing in November 2020. But Judge Brenda Penny made Bessemer Trust Company of California the co-conservator along with her father, which was long requested by Britney. In a turn of events, Bessemer Trust on July 1st, 2021, requested the court to approve their resignation as conservator, citing reasons such as claims of irreparable damage caused to the client. 

James or Jamie Spears is also entrusted with Britney’s personal matters along with the court-appointed care manager Jodi Montgomery, who is a professional private fiduciary.  But there have been differences cited by Britney’s father of co-managing the personal matters with Jodi and have also filed before the court to not appoint him as the sole conservator after James relinquished the role citing medical issues. Whereas, Britney wanted to appoint Jodi as her permanent conservator in a petition filed through her attorney Samuel D. Ingham III. But even if Jodi is the sole temporary conservator for Britney’s personal matters, the main decision-maker is James because all personal decisions are related to money which cannot be approved without her father’s involvement. 

It was early in 2019 when Britney cancelled her Las Vegas residency concert citing “indefinite work hiatus” and finally refused to perform any further citing mental breakdown until her father is removed from the conservatorship. Britney had finally requested the court for a hearing in person, unlike the rest of the times, where she has spoken through her court-appointed attorney. 

About the dramatic testimony of Britney Spears on her abusive conservatorship 

Recently, on June 23, 2021, in a hearing before the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, Superior Court of Los Angeles, Britney spoke out for the first time against the abusive conservatorship. she has contested against the conservatorship in the hearing. 

From the court’s transcripts, some of the excerpts from her testimony are: 

I worked seven days a week, no days off, which in California, the only similar thing to this is called sex trafficking.”

“Ma’am, I didn’t know I could petition the conservatorship to end it. I’m sorry for my ignorance, but I honestly didn’t know that. For my sanity, I need you as the judge to approve me to do an interview where I can be heard on what they did to me. And actually, I have the right to use my voice and take up for myself. My attorney says I can’t.”

“The conservatorship, from the beginning, once you see someone, whoever it is, in the conservatorship making money, making them money, and myself money and working – that whole statement right there, the conservatorship should end.” 

“I shouldn’t be in a conservatorship if I can work and provide money and work for myself and pay other people — it makes no sense. The laws need to change.” 

“I was told right now in the conservatorship, I’m not able to get married or have a baby, I have an Intrauterine Device (IUD) inside of myself right now so I don’t get pregnant. I wanted to take the (IUD) out so I could start trying to have another baby. But this so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out because they don’t want me to have children – any more children.”

However, according to the recent updates, the court has unfortunately denied removing her father from the conservatorship immediately. The court while rejecting observed that “she is substantially unable to manage his or her financial resources or to resist fraud or undue influence.” 

About the #freeBritney movement

Considering this and her explosive testimony before the court, the #freeBritney movement has now again gained momentum. Contrary to what people might think about this movement, it was started as early as 2008, when her conservatorship news became public. Fans all around the world have been concerned about Britney and since 2008, there have been various instances where the fans have tried to communicate with Britney on social media platform Instagram through cryptic messaging. 

For instance, in one of her Instagram posts, fans communicated to Britney to wear yellow, if she is in danger or she needs help. This has happened after fans have commented on her videos to wear this colour to indicate her situation. In another incident, fans wanted to confirm the yellow colour theory and they had again made similar requests for Britney to wear blue in her next photo, and she uploaded a photo wearing it. Most fans have commented that she needs help and have even tagged various police agencies so that someone can reach out to hear. But nothing serious happened after it. 

Other celebrities that have been in conservatorship 

Lindsay Lohan, another famous actress, was pushed into conservatorship by her father because she was allegedly under the influence of a controlled substance. Apparently, the management team that managed the conservatorship of Britney was also involved in Lindsay’s case. 

Another celebrity who is under conservatorship is Amanda Bynes. She has a similar history to that of Britney. Amanda’s mother is her conservator of the person and estate. She has also spoken out against the strict conservatorship in which she has not been allowed to marry her boyfriend and to make her own decisions even if she is capable of doing it.  

Laws that govern conservatorship 

California Probate Code, 2005 

Conservatorship is prevalent in the state of California legal system and it is governed through the California Probate Code, 2005. Under Section 1800.3, the court, after being satisfied, may appoint a conservator for the person or estate or both for an incapacitated adult. The court can only grant conservatorship after an express finding that the granting of the conservatorship is the least restrictive alternative needed for the protection of the conservatee.

To be appointed as a conservator of person and estate, it shall be proved on evidence that the person is unable to provide for his or her personal needs for physical health, food, clothing, or shelter and is also unable to substantially manage his or her own financial resources or resist fraud or undue influence. The burden of proof on substantial inability may not be proved solely by isolated incidents of negligence or improvidence as defined under Section 1801.  

The conservator may either be court-appointed or the court may appoint a person as a conservator who wishes to be one. In the latter case, the person may have to file a petition to the court for the same, provided the person establishes a good cause for the appointment under Section 1802. The court also has the power to appoint private legal counsel for the conservatee and may fix the fees to be given to the counsel under Section 1471 as per the capacity of the conservatee.  Further, the Probate Code allows the conservatee to be a part of the hearing under Section 1825 unless the conservatee has expressly refused to attend the hearing. 

Professional fiduciary are governed through the Code of Ethics 

In California, if professional fiduciaries are involved as conservators, then there is a licensing requirement that they need to fulfil and they are bound to abide by the Code of Ethics. However, no such law is available for the family members who are in charge of the conservatorship. Section 4470 mentions the licensee’s fiduciary duties to the conservatee when acting as a court-appointed conservator. 

Rights of Britney violated by the abusive conservatorship  

Since Britney’s whole conservatorship process has been confidential and shrouded by non-disclosure agreements, there is no other source available to analyse what all rights have been violated because of the conservatorship. However, the news reports have cited various instances that are potentially a violation of her rights. 

For instance, the article published by CNN states that Britney’s father has alleged that his daughter’s attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, has falsely stated a court order of 2014 which stated that Britney has lost her ability to give informed consent to any form of medical treatment. This is contrary to the fact that Britney spoke out in court about the forced insertion of an IUD to stop her from getting pregnant. 

Britney has spoken out against the forced insertion of IUD and her inability to procreate and marry again in her testimony. However, the Probate Code does not affect the right of the conservatee to marry under Section 1900. But since Britney believed this was not allowed in her conservatorship, she pleaded against it in court. This also means that she was kept in delusion about the rights that she can claim in her conservatorship 

It is concerning to note that the right to procreate has been discussed in the Probate Code in the context of limited conservatorship, where it has been mentioned that those who are unable to form mental consent can be subjected to sterilization. This is the case, provided, that no person who voluntarily opposes sterilisation can be subjected to the same under Section 1950. But since absolute conservatorship concludes the total incapacity of the person, it can be inferred that the right to procreate may not be available to her in her conservatorship. Nevertheless, forced birth control measures is a violation of her reproductive rights and bodily autonomy which is a human right under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women under Article 16.  

She has also communicated against the medical team in her testimony as they had put her on lithium drugs and they had also removed her from the medication she was talking about for five years without her consent. This has happened after she refused to perform in Las Vegas. It should be noted that the treatment of lithium is given in cases of bipolar disorder and for the long-term treatment of depression and mania. Further, she has categorically stated an instance where she was sent to rehab and no privacy was available to her. She was asked to undress in front of her staff since she did not have a bedroom door. 

These are instances which concern her right to life, bodily rights, and privacy. Although the US Constitution does not guarantee the right to bodily autonomy explicitly, the Supreme Court of the US has interpreted bodily autonomy vis-a-vis privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965). Further, the court has also observed the right to sexual privacy concerning the right to procreate in Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) as within the ambit of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the American Constitution

How can she get out of her conservatorship? 

According to the legal experts, it will not be easy for Britney to get out of her conservatorship. This is true because Section 1860 of the Probate Code states that the conservatorship will continue till the death of the conservatee or by will end with an order of the court. In the latter case, getting out of this legal arrangement requires investigation by the Probate Court which could continue for several months and years. The court can only terminate conservatorship when it is no longer required or that the grounds for the establishment of a conservatorship of a person or estate or both, no longer exists under Section 1863. This means even though Britney became vocal about her abusive condition, there is no immediate relief that may be granted to her under the system. 

Analysis 

The conservatorship arrangement is potentially open to abuse because the conservatee is treated as a person who is incapable of making any kind of decision independently. It is important to understand that Section 1801 differentiates between two kinds of conservatorship. One is absolute and the other one is limited. In the limited conservatorship, the conservatee is not considered as incompetent as it is restricted to developmentally disabled adults and his/her legal and civil rights are not taken away. The same cannot be said for the absolute conservatorship which clearly uses the term ‘unable’ which shows incapacity. 

But does incapability here also indicate that the legal and civil rights are not available to the conservatee? The answer to this may be yes. At least, in Britney’s case, she has no rights over her property and decisions relating to her health and everything else. She is treated as a child. But in reality, she has been capable of making decisions as and when she became better. Ironically, she is the one who is earning the money and paying for the legal team, the conservatorship, and everything else and she has no say over it. She cannot make any expenses without getting approval from her conservator father.  

Any adult person who is capable of making legal decisions should not be kept in such an arrangement because it leads to nothing but sheer exploitation and disregard to the basic human rights of the conservatee. In a recent court filing, Britney’s mother Lynne Spears has testified before the court that Britney has been able to take care of herself in the last few years and she should at least be able to appoint her own lawyer. This also comes at the time when Samuel D. Ingham III, who has been Britney’s court-appointed counsel for 13 years has also resigned.

Conclusion 

Like Britney’s case of conservatorship, there are multiple similar cases that are commonly seen. The unregulated manner in which conservatorship works in the US is against the democratic freedom envisaged in the Constitution of America. The subject of conservatorship is important to be discussed because it not just damages the mental sanity of a person but also interferes with bodily rights. It is unregulated because it starts with the sanction of the court but ends with exploitation. This is especially true in cases where celebrities are involved because, then, confidentiality becomes an issue. 

But here is another thing that we need to think about. What happens to a conservatee when he/she is not a celebrity? Since the arrangement is potentially similar to imprisonment for a celebrity like Britney, what would happen to a normal person? Will that person’s case be highlighted as this one is being right now? The answer is probably no.

Now, in Britney’s case, another hearing is supposed to take place on 14th July where according to the reports, Britney will be pleading to remove her from conservatorship absolutely “without having to endure another evaluation”. However, the New York Times in a documentary has already reported that she has been trying to end her conservatorship since 2014 and appoint her own lawyer. She has been unable to do so because of the court’s consistent observation that she is incapable and cannot make her own decisions. Britney’s case must force us to think about all other Britneys that are out there, of which the world does not know about.

References 


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