the law

The Stakes at Britney Spears’s Latest Conservatorship Hearing Couldn’t Be Higher

According to one expert, “I think she is going to make it clear that there is no going back from this.” Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Earlier this month, Britney Spears, rocking back and forth, posted a video to her Instagram saying that she “hears” a lot of fans have been writing in asking questions, and she said she is here to answer all of them. After sharing that her favorite business trip was to Italy at the invitation of Donatella Versace and that her shoe size was a seven (she held up seven fingers), Spears then addressed the elephant in the room.

For the next question, “Am I ready to take the stage again, am I gonna take the stage again, will I ever take the stage again?,” she said, “I have no idea. I’m having fun right now. I’m in transition in my life. And I’m enjoying myself.”

Her fans responded by leaving comments that ranged from “I’m concerned” to “Baby the ONLY question we ask you is IF YOU ARE OK.”

Speculation over the reason for Spears being in a conservatorship has percolated since the restrictive legal entity was put in place on February 1, 2008, over the then-26-year-old singer controlling not only her person but also her financial estate. Now nearing 40, Spears is headed (virtually) to court today to speak to the Los Angeles judge Brenda Penny about the conservatorship.

Members of the #FreeBritney movement have gathered outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Multiple media outlets, from Entertainment Tonight, Law & Crime Trial Network, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Associated Press, People, TMZ, and a documentary production crew, have all submitted requests asking the judge to allow them to film and record the hearing, despite the fact that Spears and her attorney won’t be in the courtroom and will be participating virtually. Two hours ago, Spears’s boyfriend, Sam Asghari, posted a photo of himself wearing a #FreeBritney shirt. The buzz has reached a crescendo — will this be the day the conservatorship ends?

For the past 13 years, there has been considerable discussion by the public (fans and media) over why the singer — who can conduct tours, put out albums, and generate active income, from a $15 million deal from serving as an X Factor judge to headlining multiple Las Vegas residencies, where she reportedly earned $500,000 a show — needed to be in a conservatorship, which under California law is for individuals who cannot care for themselves or manage their own finances.

The #FreeBritney movement has gained significant traction, with even the New York Times jumping into the fray and commissioning its own documentary detailing the legalities of the “court-sanctioned conservatorship,” Framing Britney Spears.

Spears’s iconic performances and songs made her a star, but it has always been her personal life that has captivated her following. In 2004, her music career was taking off. After six Grammy nominations, Spears finally won her first Grammy for Best Dance Recording for her single “Toxic” but didn’t go to pick the award up in person. She married her former backup dancer Kevin Federline that same year. After only two years, their marriage crumbled, with both of them filing dueling divorce petitions.

But before their divorce was final, Spears was publicly spiraling out of control and infamously shaved her own head at a Tarzana haircutting studio, reportedly saying only “My mom is going to kill me” at the time, according to the Los Angeles Times. She went straight from the hairdresser, with a sweatshirt wrapped around her bald head, to get a tattoo on her stomach.

Spears’s behavior was exacerbated by the fact that at the time, Federline sought primary custody of the couple’s two young sons, Sean Preston and Jayden James. By January 3, 2008, things between the estranged spouses had reached the breaking point when Spears refused to turn over the children after her scheduled visitation ended.

Police cars, ambulances, news crews, and paparazzi descended on her Beverly Hills home after it was reported that Spears locked herself in the bathroom with Jayden and refused to give him back. By midnight, Spears was photographed being taken away from the house on a gurney to Cedars-Sinai hospital for observation. The next day, Federline went to court and obtained temporary legal and physical custody over their children.

By then, Spears’s parents had had enough of watching their daughter’s wild behavior play out in the media. According to a declaration later filed in the court by Spears’s mother, Lynne, on January 28, she and Spears’s father, Jamie, went to the singer’s house because they were “very concerned” about their daughter’s safety. Lynne detailed in her court papers the strange evening, telling the court that she watched Spears that night appear to be in an agitated state and unable to stop moving. Lynne said she watched Britney clean the house and change her and her dog’s clothes many times.

“Britney spoke to me in a tone and with a level of understanding of a very young girl,” Lynne said in the declaration. “Britney then picked up a bottle of pills (among those on the counter were Risperdal and Seroquel) and read part of the label and asked us ‘What does insomnia mean?’”

Three days later, Spears was involuntarily committed to UCLA. Meanwhile, Jamie went to court to request a conservatorship over his daughter, which was granted and remains instated to this very day.

Spears was still in the hospital when the conservatorship was put in place. By the time attorney Adam Streisand went to court on her behalf four days later, Los Angeles Superior Court judge Reva Goetz, overseeing the case at the time, determined that as a conservatee, she lacked the mental capacity to retain an attorney and denied his request to be heard.

From the start, Jamie set about rebuilding his daughter’s career, and there is no doubt that under Jamie’s reign, Spears’s career rebounded and her finances flourished. When the conservatorship was put in place, Spears was “in the midst of a complete and very public personal and financial crisis,” according to a joint 2009 petition on the state of Spears’s finances filed by attorneys for Jamie and by Andrew Wallet. The report stated that through “the concerned efforts of Mr. Spears as well as all the professionals involved, all aspects of Ms. Spears’ life have been stabilized and continued to improve. She is under the regular care of physicians and her physical and mental health continue to mend.” She had also been given at that time “substantial visitation with her children.”

In a declaration to the court in 2011, Jamie said that he worked “virtually around the clock” serving as Spears’s conservator and received $16,000 a month for his services, plus an additional $1,200 for office rental.

Everything appeared to be running smoothly until January 4, 2019, when Spears announced she was canceling her Domination Las Vegas residency and going on an “indefinite work hiatus,” citing her father’s health as the reason. “However, it’s important to always put your family first … and that’s the decision I had to make. A couple of months ago, my father was hospitalized and almost died. We’re all so grateful that he came out of it alive, but he still has a long road ahead of him,” she wrote in a Twitter post.

According to a transcript of a closed-door hearing obtained by the New York Times and TMZ, that spring Spears appeared herself in court and read a statement saying that she had been taken to a mental hospital against her will. She told the court that “she viewed [it] as punishment for standing up for herself and making an objection during a rehearsal” and that she had been forced to perform while sick with a 104-degree fever, calling it one of the scariest moments of her life. She also told the court at that hearing that there was nothing wrong with her.

By September that year, the relationship between Spears and her father reportedly took an even darker turn. It was alleged that a physical altercation took place between Jamie and his grandson Sean Preston at Jamie’s house in Ventura County. Because Jamie needed to be present during child visitation, that made him staying on as Spears’s conservator almost impossible. Days later, Jamie filed emergency papers asking to be removed from his role as conservator of Spears’s person and asked that the court immediately appoint Jodi Montgomery, a California-licensed professional fiduciary trained in social work, in his place.

It was then that Britney, through her court-appointed attorney, Samuel Ingham, started to make unprecedented moves to remove Jamie completely from a role in the conservatorship. On August 17, 2020, Ingham filed a motion stating the need for the conservatorship to change. He described the conservatorship as existing in three stages: “(1) triage — her conservators rescued her from a collapse, exploitation by predatory individuals and financial ruin; (2) Britney’s performing years — where Britney was able to regain her position as a world class entertainer with multiple world tours; and (3) Britney’s stated desire not to perform at this time — We are now at a point where the conservatorship must be changed substantially in order to reflect the major changes in her current lifestyle and her stated wishes.”

“BRITNEY is strongly opposed to having James return as conservator of her person,” Ingham wrote in his court papers.

Spears, he said in the papers, “strongly prefers to have Ms. Montgomery continue in that role as she had done for nearly a year,” and he asked that her appointment be made permanent, “without in any way waving [Britney’s] right to seek termination of this conservatorship in the future.”

Ingham later also asked the court on his client’s behalf to appoint the bank Bessemer Trust Company to serve as the sole conservator of her estate and remove Jamie completely. Jamie’s legal team fought that request in court and suggested in court papers filed on August 19, 2020, that the court instead reappoint Andrew Wallet — an attorney and financial adviser who served as co-conservator of Spears’s estate until March 2019, when he abruptly resigned, leaving Jamie as the sole conservator over his daughter’s estate — to serve as co-conservator with him.

The competing request came before Judge Penny at a hearing held on April 27, 2021, where Penny put off making a ruling on Spears’s request to permanently appoint Montgomery as her conservator until a July 14 hearing. But then at the end of that hearing, Ingham dropped a bombshell: His client now wants to address the court herself. Penny set the date as June 23 to hear from Spears.

At 1:30 PT today, Spears will “address the court directly.” What exactly Spears will say, though, Ingham didn’t let on. Jamie and Lynne, along with their respective attorneys, are expected to be in attendance.

“I think Britney is finally going to have the opportunity to address the court to discuss the issues she is having with her father,” said Tamar Arminak, a conservatorship attorney not involved in Spears’s case but who represented Amanda Bynes’s parents in their daughter’s conservatorship. “I think she is going to make it clear that there is no going back from this, that their relationship is clearly broken down to a point where it would be more harmful to keep Jamie on the conservatorship than it would be to replace him.”

Arminak added that Spears’s team seemed to be moving methodically toward the goal of ending the conservatorship but that getting her father off it is the first step.

“The #FreeBritney movement is giving her a voice, whereas for nearly the last 12 years, she didn’t even have an advocate against her father — not even her own mother really even publicly came out,” said Arminak. “Now, she actually does have support, and I think that is the end goal.”

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