Court Issues Blow to Britney Spears' Father's Control Over the Pop Icon's Investments

Britney Spears at the Clive Davis and The Recording Academy Pre-Grammy Gala in Beverly Hills, California. Photo Source: Britney Spears at the Clive Davis and The Recording Academy Pre-Grammy Gala in Beverly Hills, California, file photo, Feb. 11, 2017. (Rich Fury/Invision/AP)

Britney Spears has not performed on stage or worked in the music industry since the early days of 2019. Despite her hiatus, she is getting plenty of media attention, especially after The New York Times released a full-length documentary, "Framing Britney," detailing the pop star's life, public breakdown, and her highly controversial conservatorship.

In recent months, the #FreeBritney movement, which advocates for the end of the conservatorship, has expanded, and other big-name celebrities are joining the cry to return the 39-year-old her independence. The confidentiality surrounding the terms of the conservatorship and the lack of information regarding the reason that the court implemented it in the first place have led to much speculation.

Previously, Ms. Spears unsuccessfully attempted to remove her father as her conservator, but last week, the California court with jurisdiction over the matter refused his efforts to gain more financial control over her estate. The decision may be a sign that the judge is beginning to listen to Ms. Spears' opinion.

While events leading up to the conservatorship likely indicated that the pop star needed help, Ms. Spears is far from the only celebrity to have such a breakdown. Many other celebrities have endured high-profile controversy, arrests, and struggles with addiction without losing control over their lives and money. For people familiar with conservatorships, the power that James Spears has over his daughter's life is, at the very least, unusual.

What is a Conservatorship?

Each state has laws that provide a way for family or others to control a person's financial and personal life in extreme cases. In some jurisdictions, a conservatorship involves financial control, while the courts may refer to a person tasked with another individual's physical well-being as a guardian. In California, the term conservator describes both legal arrangements.

A conservator responsible for taking care of another adult's personal well-being may schedule doctor's appointments, ensure the person takes medication, and ensure basic personal hygiene. The typical example of a person in need of such care would be an elderly individual with dementia.

A judge may put a person in charge of another individual's finances for similar reasons. For example, an older adult experiencing cognitive decline might not be capable of ensuring they pay their taxes and could become the victim of scams or opportunists.
While a conservatorship might be supported by the subject of the conservatorship, there are times when a person might oppose giving up control over so many parts of their lives. In those cases, the court must determine whether to grant the conservatorship over the subject’s objections (sometimes known as an involuntary conservatorship).

How Does a Court Decide Whether to Create a Conservatorship?

A conservator acts similarly as a parent would to their child. For an adult, having a conservator means a massive loss of freedom and autonomy. Sometimes it may be challenging to decide whether a person truly needs a conservator.

California Probate Code Section 1801(a) creates the legal standard for a conservatorship. For a person to gain control over the other's person, the court must find that the proposed conservatee cannot "provide properly" for their food, physical health, shelter, or clothing. The standard which the proposed conservator must meet is clear and convincing evidence. The law is potentially too vague as there are many ways to interpret "properly." Arguably, a person who lives entirely on fast food could qualify, as could a person who neglects to go to the dentist.

The law pertaining to financial control states that a court can create a conservatorship when a person is "substantially unable to manage" their finances and is not capable of resisting fraud or undue influence. The law states that there must be a pattern of behavior and not only isolated incidents.

The statute does not require a diagnosis of mental disability but instead relies on the individual's behavior. The language likely opens the door for possible abuses of the system. Additionally, just because someone may need help with their finances or their well-being does not necessarily mean that they cannot receive such assistance without forfeiting control over every significant decision in their life. Many adults have disabilities and manage to function with the support of friends and loved ones without those friends and loved ones wielding complete control.

Many people believe that it is crucial that courts only approve a conservatorship when it is essential. The conservatee should maintain as much autonomy as possible.

Why Does Britney Spears have a Conservatorship?

The details regarding the creation of Ms. Spears' conservatorship are not clear. In the time leading up to the arrangement, the world watched as Ms. Spears gave birth to two babies back-to-back, followed by a public and traumatic divorce and custody battle. Shaving her head and attacking the paparazzi were a couple of dramatic indications that things were not going well in her life.

However, neither action on its own is a strong signal that she could not care for herself or her finances. Whatever the judge saw that led to the decision to appoint James Spears as the conservatorship is not entirely clear.

Ms. Spears has rarely commented on the conservatorship, although she opposes the arrangement, and court proceedings indicate she opposes her father's appointment as conservator. Those factors, and others, added fuel to the fans who believe that the pop star is effectively a prisoner being used by opportunists who exploited her breakdown and vulnerability for personal gain.

Mr. Spears lost some control over the conservatorship after an alleged altercation with his grandson, Ms. Spears' then thirteen-year-old son. However, the court refused to remove him as the conservatorship. The judge did put a corporate co-conservator in place, as Ms. Spears requested.

The Controversy Surrounding the Conservatorship

Under the conservatorship, Ms. Spears performed at a residency in Las Vegas and appeared on television shows. Many people wondered how she could be well enough for a busy career in show business and not able to make fundamental decisions about her own well-being. The arrangement was also very lucrative to her conservators, including her father. As Ms. Spears brought in millions, her father and others involved took a cut.

The image of a woman in her thirties who is so vulnerable that she needs a parent-like caregiver does not conform with that of a diva performing multiple shows a week in front of a crowded arena full of adoring fans.
While the ability to work may exist even when a person cannot "properly" care for themselves, Ms. Spears's image is a far cry from the typical conservatee - a person well into their old age struggling with Alzheimer's or other similar conditions.

The Recent Ruling Indicates a Loss of Power for James Spears

Mr. Spears requested that he have the ability to direct the investments made by the corporate co-conservator. The court denied that motion, and Mr. Spears must now work with the corporation that Ms. Spears selected as a conservator. Although not a major loss, Mr. Spears' control over his daughter is now more limited.

Whether the decision may indicate that the pop star is on the path to recover control over her life and finances is not yet clear. And while another documentary about Ms. Spears will be coming to Netflix in the near future, the world has heard little from the star herself. Until a time when Ms. Spears decides to or has the freedom to speak out about everything that happened in her life, the world will undoubtedly continue to speculate.

Sarah Roberts, J.D.
Sarah Roberts, J.D.
Sarah Roberts is a lawyer and writer who covers news and current events related to the legal profession. Before graduating with honors from Chicago-Kent College of Law, Sarah earned a master’s degree in archaeology. She enjoys covering culturally relevant topics and breaking down legal stories for a general audience.