By Aron Solomon
The legal concept of conservatorship is admittedly not something that often comes across anyone’s social media screens. That all changed when Britney Spears, once arguably the most famous celebrity in the world, bravely spoke out in court in June about what she characterized as a profoundly toxic conservatorship.
So what is she fighting against? What exactly is a conservatorship?
At its core, a conservatorship is simply a way for someone to assume legal guardianship over an adult, which is exactly the toxic “poison paradise,” to quote her song, she has been under since 2008.
Poison paradise is not a wholly inappropriate play on words here. Viewed through the best possible light, her family went through the legal conservatorship process 13 years ago with only her best interests in their hearts and minds, in fear that her mental and emotional state could lead to physical harm, and her decision-making capacities were impaired to the point that she couldn’t deal with her business affairs.
Yet the breadth and depth of each conservatorship is different as it depends upon the unique capacity of the individual under a conservatorship to make decisions on their own. While we do not know the exact legal terms of Ms. Spears’ conservatorship, in her impassioned speech in court, she alleged that it is dehumanizing to the point that it requires her to use an IUD birth control device against her will and that the terms even bar her from marrying.
It is precisely this speech that reignited the #FreeBritney movement and launched it into the social media stratosphere, where it remains two weeks later. Yet purely from the perspective of the law and legal process it did nothing.
What the court actually did in June was simply reject an earlier request by Ms. Spears’ lawyer to suspend Britney Spears’ father, James P. Spears (commonly known as Jamie) as conservator of her estate.
This is not the end of anything, aside from a motion. The judge in the case – Judge Brenda Penny – is simply denying a request to suspend. This truly has no bearing upon any larger case to permanently remove (not “suspend”) Mr. Spears from his role as conservator.
But that can’t happen right now for a very simple reason: No matter how much Ms. Spears’ epic soliloquy moved her fans, the judge is unable to act upon it because the Spears legal team has not yet filed a petition in court to terminate her conservatorship, which left a lot of people scratching their heads two weeks ago as to why that hadn’t already been done.
The most recent legal decision in Ms. Spears’ case can be viewed in two possible ways. The first is that it’s just a procedural issue. Again, all the judge did this week is rule on a removal request that was filed back in November of last year, well before this new blast of international social media attention that was the product of the hearing and of Ms. Spears’ speech. Something the judge did that escaped the maelstrom on social media was also officially assign Bessemer Trust as Jamie Spears’ co-conservator and Jodi Montgomery as Britney Spears’ conservator of the person – a person with responsibility for Ms. Spears’ personal life and medical treatment. Yet only hours after Bessemer was assigned, they backed out, claiming that when they agreed to join, they did so with the understanding that Ms. Spears was in favor. Now that she is claiming publicly that she wants the conservatorship to end, Bessemer perceptively saw that joining would be a bad look.
The June decision can also be viewed as a setback for Ms. Spears in her ongoing campaign to be free from the conservatorship. It is very important to note that the judge signed the order a week after Ms. Spears’ speech – the same speech in which she asserted on several occasions that her father/conservator is abusive. If the judge wasn’t sufficiently swayed by the same speech that put rocket fuel into the #FreeBritney movement to remove Jamie Spears as conservator, a quick look through the glass darkly leaves the impending petition to terminate the conservatorship in peril.
Finally, this Tuesday July 6th, Ms. Spears’ lawyer, Samuel Ingham III, filed paperwork to resign as her lawyer and to be removed from the case. Ingham had represented Spears for 13 years, from the beginning of the conservatorship.
This legal maneuver could not only really slow things down, but there’s also the question of who will represent her next. It has only very recently come to light that Britney claims not to have realized that she had the option to request to terminate her conservatorship – which would explain why she hadn’t filed earlier and the judge in June had simply ruled on the earlier motion to remove her father as conservator.
Social media is already abuzz with the realization that if she doesn’t get to choose her next lawyer (if the court simply appoints another one) that could be bad. It could be equally bad if Ms. Speers doesn’t have good people in her life to help find her lawyer who will be out to truly help her rather than take from her. The more we learn about the details of this case, the more yellow and red flags it raises, not just from a legal perspective but more importantly from the perspective of the tens if not hundreds of millions of people around the world who don’t want to see her life prematurely end as a cautionary tale.
Yet from a purely legal standpoint, the next steps are clear. Once Ms. Spears has new legal counsel, if she truly wants to end the conservatorship, her new legal team needs to file a petition to terminate it. Once this is processed, the court will set a hearing on this issue. Until that happens, the best speeches that inflame the collective and perhaps well-placed outrage in her hundreds of millions of fans around the world is only for show. The real work for Ms. Spears, should she actually file the petition, will be in court, where only a factual basis for ending the conservatorship and solid evidentiary support can win the day.