It’s been less than a week since Britney Spears stunned the world by speaking her truth in a virtual court hearing last Wednesday, June 23, about being trapped in what she considers an oppressive conservatorship. Since then, the singer, 39, has departed on a vacation to Maui with her 27-year-old boyfriend, personal trainer and actor Sam Asghari. Meanwhile, celebrities from Christina Aguilera, Cher, Halsey, and Courtney Love to even Justin Timberlake have come forward to support Britney’s desire to end her conservatorship. And though Britney’s younger sister, Jamie Lynn, broke her silence on June 28 to say she was “only concerned about [Britney’s] happiness,” many fans found her comments disingenuous and criticized her for not publicly defending her sister sooner or supporting the movement, and have started to petition to remove her from her Netflix show, Sweet Magnolias.
In light of all this pressure and outpouring of support, fans of the #FreeBritney movement, and maybe even Britney herself, have been wondering why there hasn’t been a petition filed yet to end the 13-year-old conservatorship. (Spears’s next hearing is set for July 14, where it’s possible a petition to remove her father, Jamie Spears, as a co-conservator could be initiated or a petition to end the conservatorship altogether; she is not expected to speak at this hearing.) Others’ cases suggest the wait may never end.
In 2013, after experiencing a public breakdown, Amanda Bynes’s parents successfully obtained a conservatorship over their then-27-year-old daughter; Bynes, now 35, continues to be under the care and direction of that conservatorship. Conservatorship attorney Tamar Arminak, who represented Amanda Bynes’s parents during their public and legal troubles with their daughter, spoke to Vulture to break down why the wheels of justice might not move as quickly as Spears and her fans want.
Britney Spears told the court that she wanted to end her conservatorship, but that she wanted it done without having to meet with another evaluator. She said she had done her research and the judge has the power to end it without her having to meet with any more health professionals. Is that accurate?
No, I think if she wants to get rid of the conservatorship, then she is going to have to meet with not only the court investigator, but also a mental-health evaluator. I don’t think a reasonable judge would let her off a conservatorship without her doing that.
She told the judge, Brenda Penny, that she didn’t even know after 13 years that she could, and had to herself, request to end the conservatorship. Wasn’t that the responsibility of her court-ordered attorney, Samuel Ingham, to inform his client of this ability and the process to end her conservatorship?
We don’t know how her attorney presented it to her. He very well could have informed her. What she’s saying now, [that] he informed her in such a way that she didn’t realize, or maybe he informed her years ago, that’s a problem. It’s a problem for him that she’s saying in open court that “he never told me.”
There is no question now that Britney asked the court to end the conservatorship. What would be the court’s next step?
Just asking for it is not good enough. She needs to bring a full petition to dissolve the conservatorship and file it with the court. If she asks her lawyer to do it, he has an obligation to do it. There may be a lot of reasons why he hasn’t done so thus far, but certainly it seems like she’s indicated she wants out of it. After the petition is filed, there will basically be a mini-trial held on whether the conservatorship continues to be in her best interest.
Samuel Ingham has been her court-appointed attorney for the past 13 years and Britney said in court that recently they have been working a lot together, but she also made it clear that she wants to hire her own attorney. Will the court let her hire and retain her own legal counsel?I’m sure it may seem to Britney that he’s complicit in what she’s going through. I’m quite sure that she’s expressed to [Ingham] that she wants to do [more to end the conservatorship].
Right, so can Britney legally hire her own attorney at this point?
In the beginning of this conservatorship, we know that she hired her own attorneys and that they were summarily dismissed by the court. Then the court appointed Ingham.
The question becomes, is she well enough to enter into a contract and to sign a retainer? Is she well enough to have an attorney-client relationship where that attorney is not taking advantage of her? There are plenty of attorneys that want Britney Spears as a client, because they’re going to bill, bill, bill, and take her money and get publicity over it.
Interesting that during her testimony, she said that at one point when she wanted to quit the tour, they handed her a legal agreement for her to sign that outlined the terms of the tour and what would happen if she backed out. So they clearly appear to feel that she has the capacity to enter into legal binding agreements?
Correct. I’m sure she can make the point that she has signed probably dozens of legal agreements. [It’s likely] she signed one of those sobriety contracts that they often give celebrities. [It’s likely] that she signed insurance contracts for the tour.
She should make that point to the judge that, “I’m well enough to do X, Y, Z, all of these things that they’ve had me do and asked me to sign all these agreements,” to show that she is capable. She could then find her own attorney, present that attorney to the court, and then ask the judge to appoint them.
Ingham doesn’t need to be off the case; he can participate as her co-counsel. There are a lot of ways to do it so that Britney feels listened to and that she has someone she trusts on her side.
What about the claims she made about being forced to take medication and being held in a facility against her will?
I think what she was describing wasn’t taking her and putting her in a locked facility. In fact, the facility she referenced, Bridges, is one that’s really familiar here in L.A. Though the conservatorship clearly exerts a lot of power over Britney.
She referenced the word “punishment.” If you don’t do that, then this is what you get. It instills this sort of Stockholm syndrome fear in a person. I don’t think she was physically forced, but I certainly think she was coerced. Coercion is a big part of conservatorships in that they dangle the carrot in front of you and if you do XYZ, you’re going to get to see your boyfriend or go on vacation.
But she specifically said she didn’t feel she could walk out the front door of the facility.
Sure, if she walked out the front door, there would be serious consequences. She doesn’t drive and she can’t get in her boyfriend’s car, apparently. Someone might need to pick her up. She’s depending on her conservator for, for all we know, access to food delivery. She referenced her maids; having household staff is something that can be taken away from her.
She said they took away her passport, her credit cards, etc. Is that legal?Yes, it is legal to give incentives. In the sense that if the conservator believes that [Britney] needs to be in this rehab, [they can] tell her to go to this rehab, and, “If you don’t go to this rehab, we’re going to take away these benefits or these things that you like.” What [would] be illegal is to force her into something.
It sounds like a fine line, because to me it sounded like she described a situation where she was being forced. Is this a question for the court to determine?
Yes, the question is, is there someone physically restraining her and physically forcing her to take medication? Which cannot happen. Or is it a situation where she’s incentivized — “these are the rules and you need to follow them.” Essentially, she is being treated like a minor. How a parent who has a 14- or 13-year-old can force them to go to school, can force them to clean up their room, can take away dessert and a bike, etc.
If she tried to leave the rehab and walked to the door, they could not physically grab and prevent her from leaving?
No, they couldn’t physically grab her or stop her. But don’t forget, she’s not you or me. She’s Britney Spears, so she can never leave any secure or safe place by just walking out. She can never do that. I mean, everybody has a camera and a cell phone now, and it would just be impossible. That’s a sort of freedom that is not available to Britney Spears.
She spoke about wanting to have kids, but being prevented by the conservatorship. She said she is 39 and has an IUD implanted in her that she wants removed.
There could be reasons why a conservator wouldn’t want someone who’s taking psychotropic medications or has a history of depression or other issues to become pregnant. Drugs that are prescribed for illness could cause serious side effects and birth defects in fetuses.
She is saying that she was “forced,” not that she was held down and forced to do this procedure. It’s what she was told: “This is what you need to do. These are the rules.” And she knows that there’s consequences to that so she has no choice.
She said in court that she wanted to sue her family for what they have done to her. Is that possible?
I don’t think so. As a conservator for his daughter, all of Jamie Spears’s income and expenses had to be approved by the court — the $16,000 a month income and the $2,000 for office space, all of that has been court-approved and signed off on. Her medical team, repeatedly over the course of a year, submits declarations on her mental capacity. So all of that is documented.
What’s the deal with this safety health-care plan that was discussed at the end of the hearing?
Once a year, the conservator has to provide the court with a care plan.
Where is she going to live? Who are her psychiatrists? What are her medications? All of that needs to be submitted to the court. It’s one more buffer against abuse or of being taken advantage of by someone. Everybody involved has a chance to say yay or nay, or, “I have a problem with this,” or “I have a problem with that.”
And Britney spoke up and said she wanted to be involved in the plan.
Yes, she should be involved. When her previous therapist [Dr. Timothy Benson] died [in September 2019], she said she got down on her knees and thanked God. She didn’t specify, but she did use the term “abuse” in the same kind of context of this therapist. I heard that and I just thought, Wow, that’s how she must have felt about him.
Your therapist is your most trusted person, arguably in your life. [Think of] how much you must hate someone to be thankful that they’re dead. That’s significant. If she’s having feelings like that, she’s not getting better in therapy. If that’s how she feels about her therapist, then [her] therapy is wasted therapy.
She made a very articulate statement about having to go to therapy in an exposed place [in Westlake], where paparazzi can take her picture and the therapy takes place in a small office where she said she felt revictimized. There was desperation in her voice.
She mentioned she has to do this three times a week. That’s insane. Just the anxiety that it must produce in her is counterintuitive to therapy. If she came to them with these concerns and they didn’t change it, that’s not normal, because these are easy fixes and changes for someone like Britney Spears. She has enough money to have the therapist, as she requested, come to her [home].
She needs things to change. Perhaps they need to loosen up, perhaps she needs to be heard more, but I don’t think she’s coming off of this conservatorship anytime soon.
What would you do if you were her attorney?
I would immediately file to have her father removed as a co-conservator because I don’t see a point anymore for him. I don’t think he can justify continuing on this thing. I haven’t heard one word from [him] other than he loves his daughter and he wants to do what’s in her best interest. And when no one else stepped up in 2008, he stepped up in 2008. That’s all we’ve heard from [him and his lawyer].
Now, it’s 2021. Why is he still there if his being there is [negatively] affecting her so much? No one doubts that he did a great job in 2008; no one doubts that he saved her life when no one else was around.
But now he can be a father to her and she be a daughter to him, not a conservator/conservatee? Why is he refusing to step down when there are bonded professionals that can do an accounting to the judge each year? And it’s not like he’s doing it for free; he is costing her money as well. And he doesn’t have any kind of financial knowledge or specialty. The other financial professionals are bonded and have insurance.
Why do you think now is not the time for Ingham to also file a petition to end the conservatorship entirely? That’’s what his client said
I don’t think that Ingham wants to bring a losing motion. In order to end the petition, you will have to hold essentially a mini-trial. You have to present evidence and show a changed circumstance. You will have to have testimony from doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, and witnesses who will testify for you that you shouldn’t be under this conservatorship.
I think Ingham is looking at the lay of the land and seeing that Britney cannot withstand cross-examination and that Britney is not going to testify well. She spoke from the heart, but the judges are going to be looking for methodical, rational behavior.
And remember, we don’t know what we don’t know. There could be tons of medical, testing evaluations that they have showing that she’s severely mentally ill and that she should continue to be under this conservatorship. So why put on that show if she’s not going to win in the end?
Would Britney be able to rebut that testimony by hiring her own medical professionals to conduct tests and testify on her behalf that she is capable of taking care of herself and of her finances?
I think she can present alternative expert medical opinions. The problem is who gets that? Who pays for that and who arranges for that? She can present two competing opinions to the court and it would be up to the judge, but when you are under a conservatorship, that takes time and planning.
She can’t even get in the car with her boyfriend. That’s how tight they have her.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.