mental health

A Guide to Conservatorships (and Why Everyone Is Talking About Them)

Spears has had a conservator for over 12 years. Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty Images

The #FreeBritney movement has built a large online community, protested outside courtrooms, and brought widespread attention to Britney Spears’s conservatorship battle with her dad, Jamie Spears. The pop star’s father has been her conservator for over 12 years, reportedly having final say on both her major and minor decisions. But what is a conservatorship really? And is it the jail cell the internet makes it out to be? In those 12 years, the Grammy winner has released multiple chart-topping albums, gone on several tours, and made millions of dollars — proving to fans, at least, that she can make it on her own. With fans comparing Kanye West and Britney Spears, and with a major court hearing that could determine Britney’s future on the horizon, let’s break down conservatorships in pop culture right now.

What is conservatorship?
According to the Superior Court of California, conservatorship is a legal concept in the United States that allows a judge to grant a guardian (or multiple guardians) full control over an individual’s finances if that person is physically or mentally unable to manage them on their own. A conservator can be responsible for their conservatee’s estate (wealth and assets) or their “person,” which would mean that the conservator manages their daily life, living arrangements, health decisions, and more. There are also limited conservatorships for those who can make important decisions for themselves.

Conservatorships are established by court orders and are governed by various state laws. Many conservators are parents of developmentally disabled adults or guardians for elderly people, including those with dementia, who may be at greater risk of financial abuse. A general conservatorship — which is established by a judge in probate court — does not allow the guardian to force medical treatment on the conservatee and is not typically temporary, unless an emergency is putting the person at risk. Conservators report to the court that appointed them. A few high-profile celebrities have been assigned conservators following struggles with mental health, but the word comes up most often in relation to Britney Spears.

What is Britney Spears’s conservatorship ordeal?
The pop icon hasn’t had control of her finances since February 2008 when she was put on an involuntary psychiatric hold. Her father, James “Jamie” Spears, petitioned a Los Angeles court to name him and an attorney named Andrew Wallet as conservators over Britney’s “person” and her $60 million fortune — first temporarily, then permanently in October 2008. The action signaled serious concern for Spears’s well-being, but, just a few months later, she was fully back to work — filming a documentary and releasing Circus in November 2008. While every arrangement is different, for Britney the conservatorship means having to ask her father “to sign off on every major decision she makes, from business, to health, to voting and marriage,” per Newsweek. A 2016 New York Times article says that even her tiniest purchases are tracked.

Cracks in the conservatorship began to show in 2019 — 11 years after it was established — when Wallet resigned from his role, saying, “Substantial detriment, irreparable harm and immediate danger will result to the conservatee and her estate if the relief requested herein [is] not granted on an ex parte basis.” At that point, Britney’s father gained sole control of her assets. Then, in September 2019, Jamie Spears was temporarily relieved of his personal conservatorship following an alleged altercation with Britney’s 13-year-old son. This put Britney’s care manager, Jodi Montgomery, in charge of her care until August 22, 2020. Jamie Spears maintained control of her finances.

Britney’s mom, Lynne, who is divorced from her dad, filed a request to be involved in the conservatorship and informed of her daughter’s medical conditions in May 2019. Both of Britney’s parents attended a court hearing on July 22, 2020, where a judge granted Jamie Spears’s March 12, 2020, motion to seal the case from the public, per the Blast. Britney did not conference call into the hearing, reportedly owing to technical difficulties. As of August 21, 2020, Jodi Montgomery will remain her conservator for six more months. According to documents obtained by the Blast on August 20, the judge told Britney’s attorney to file any petitions, like the request to remove Jamie Spears as her conservator, by September 18. Objections must be filed by October 2. Documents obtained by ET on August 25 showed that Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney’s younger sister, was named trustee of Britney’s trust, which was set up in 2004, four years before her conservatorship began. Jamie Lynn was appointed by her father and Andrew Wallet in 2018. This makes her responsible for distributing Britney’s fortune to the trustee(s) of “BJS Kids & Family Trust,” to ensure the assets are used for her two children in the event of the pop star’s death. In the court documents, Jamie Lynn requested that the funds be transferred to a “blocked account” upon her sister’s death with Fidelity Financial Management serving as a financial adviser.

So, all this is why they want to #FreeBritney?
This and a whole lot more that sometimes borders on conspiracy theory. In unsealed court documents obtained by the New York Times on June 22, 2021, it appears Britney Spears explored removing her father as conservator as early as 2014, citing a “shopping list” of grievances, such as his drinking, control, taking cuts from her earnings, and limiting her to an allowance. She said in court that he punished her mistakes with “very harsh” consequences, adding “a lot of fear” to the conservatorship. In a closed-door hearing in 2019, Spears “claimed she had been forced to perform while sick with a 104-degree fever, calling it one of the scariest moments of her life.” A hearing is presently scheduled for June 23, 2021.

Her parents haven’t directly addressed her mental health or the need to end the conservatorship. Her 43-year-old brother, Bryan, spoke out about the arrangement on July 23, 2020. “She’s always wanted to get out of it,” he said on the podcast As NOT Seen on TV. “It’s very frustrating to have. Whether someone’s coming in peace to help or coming in with an attitude, having someone constantly tell you to do something has got to be frustrating.”

On August 18, 2020, Britney’s lawyer submitted court documents (obtained by TMZ) expressing Britney’s wishes for the conservatorship going forward. The lawyer writes that Britney “strongly prefers” keeping Jodi Montgomery as her conservator permanently. She also would prefer that a “qualified corporate fiduciary” (most likely a bank) handle her business affairs. It’s unclear whether Jamie Spears would stay on as co-conservator in that case. The docs also reveal that Britney doesn’t want to perform at this time, which is why her conservatorship needs some major changes. Documents filed September 1, obtained by Entertainment Tonight, show Britney asking the court to appoint Bessemer Trust Company, National Association, as conservator of her estate, allowing it to control her finances and power of attorney for her health and music career. “Britney is strongly opposed to her father continuing as the sole conservator of her estate,” the filing states. “Rather, without in any way waiving her right to seek termination of this conservatorship in the future, she strongly prefers to have a qualified corporate fiduciary appointed to serve in this role.” The docs also note that her conservatorship is “voluntary” and she “wishes to exercise her right to nominate a conservator of the estate under Probate Code section 1810.” On November 4, her lawyers filed new documents stating that Britney will be “filing a petition to remove James as conservator of the estate” immediately, according to ET. If not granted, they claim the singer and her estate will suffer loss and injury.

At a court hearing on November 10, a judge opposed Britney’s request to remove her father as conservator of her estate, but did appoint Bessemer Trust as co-conservator and said they will consider future requests for removal. “My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father,” Britney’s attorney, Samuel Ingham, said at the hearing. “She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career.” He added that Britney and her father have not spoken in a “long while” and have no “viable working relationship.”

In an Instagram post last year, Britney tried to shut down rumors by saying, “My situation is unique, but I promise I’m doing what’s best at this moment. You may not know this about me, but I am strong, and stand up for what I want!”

In a filing published on September 3, Britney’s lawyers opposed Jamie Spears’s motions to seal some of the case from the public, per TMZ. They argue she has no medical or sensitive issues that need to be protected, so the hearing has no reason to be private. “Britney herself is vehemently opposed to this effort by her father to keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret,” her lawyer wrote. Referencing the #FreeBritney movement, the filing states, “Far from being a conspiracy theory or a ‘joke’ as James [Jamie] reportedly told the media, in large part this scrutiny is a reasonable and even predictable result of James’s aggressive use of the sealing procedure over the years to minimize the amount of meaningful information made available to the public.”

Okay, so … what does this have to do with Kanye West?
Internet association. The resurgence of the #FreeBritney movement around her hearing coincided with Kanye West announcing his presidential campaign, leading to comparisons. West was also placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold in 2016 for “temporary psychosis.” He has since been open about living with bipolar disorder. The conversation really pivoted to him on July 20, when he posted a series of tweets, including one that read: “Kim tried to bring a doctor to lock me up with a doctor.” On Twitter, fans are divided — some want him to have a conservator, while others are worried about Kim Kardashian West becoming his conservator.

What has Kim Kardashian said about Kanye West’s mental health?
The mother of four posted a thoughtful statement on her Instagram Story, affirming her support for her husband while they “get through this.” The letter gives no indication that she feels West shouldn’t have control over his life or finances, and she says she’s protective of “Kanye’s right to privacy when it comes to his health.” “Living with bi-polar disorder does not diminish or invalidate his dreams and his creative ideas, no matter how big or unobtainable they may feel to some,” she wrote. “That is part of his genius and as we have all witnessed, many of his big dreams have come true.”

What other celebrities have conservatorships?
One current example is actress Amanda Bynes. After multiple involuntary psychiatric holds in 2013 and 2014, Bynes was placed under a conservatorship with her mother, Lynn Bynes, as her guardian. She was diagnosed with bipolar and manic depressive disorder and has since been working to improve her well-being. (She graduated from fashion school in 2019!) In August 2018, her conservatorship was extended for two years. People reports that Bynes regained financial control in 2017, but her mother maintains conservatorship over her “person,” meaning she can make medical and housing decisions for Amanda. In February 2020, Bynes told her Instagram followers she was planning to push back against her conservatorship because of an excessively expensive treatment facility.

What Exactly Is a Conservatorship?