News

What’s the Deal with Britney Spears’ Conservatorship?

drawing of Britney Spears with duct tape over her mouth

Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Britney Spears is speaking out about the conservatorship she’s been under for the past 13 years.
  • A conservatorship designates one or more persons or entities to be in charge of a person’s financial and personal and health-related decisions, if they are deemed incapable of managing
    their own affairs.
  • Signing a Power of Attorney is the best way to protect yourself from a conservatorship.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the #FreeBritney movement and how Britney Spears is challenging the conservatorship she has been living under for 13 years. 

But what exactly does this legal arrangement entail for the 39-year-old pop star and others bound by the same structure? 

Andy Gelman, JD, an attorney in Chicago, explains that conservatorship—often called guardianship in some states—is a court appointment by a judge with the purpose of designating one or more persons or entities to be in charge of a person’s financial and personal and health-related decisions if they are deemed incapable of managing their own affairs. 

“A guardianship is usually a last resort and it’s where someone doesn’t have adequate powers of attorney, so they need court supervision to make sure that their assets and medical care are properly managed,” Gelman says. 

Andy Gelman, JD

A guardianship is usually a last resort and it’s where someone doesn’t have adequate powers of attorney, so they need court supervision to make sure that their assets and medical care are properly managed

— Andy Gelman, JD

He explains that in some states like Illinois, there are different types of guardianship: one for dealing with a person’s finances and one for dealing with a person’s healthcare and other non-financial issues. 

“Sometimes the same person is the guardian of both the estate and the person. In larger situations, the guardian of the estate may be a bank,” says Gelman. 

In Spears’ situation, her dad, Jamie, was appointed conservator of her estate. 

“I don’t know the details of her situation. I can assume her dad was at least the conservator of her estate because she was complaining that her father wasn’t managing her money properly. It seems she was not contesting the fact that she has a conservator, just that she wants a different person as the conservator,” Gelman says. 

How Does Conservatorship Happen?

In some cases, Gelman says a person will acknowledge they need help in managing their finances and health and will agree to having a conservator. 

When this happens, the process is much less expensive and streamlined. 

However, he adds that a person has the right to object, to have a hearing closed to the public, to have a jury, and to contest.

“So, if you are served with papers saying your cousin wants to be your guardian, you can say in court, ‘Your honor, I don’t need it.’ This might be true, although a lot of people might say that, and they do need it,” says Gelman. 

The process begins with a petition being filed, and the alleged incapable person—referred to in law as a “disabled person”—getting served by a sheriff with a summons. Then a lawyer or guardian ad litem is appointed by the court to advise the person of his or her rights. If the person doesn’t object, the court reviews all the papers and either appoints or denies a guardian. 

“If the disabled person objects, then the petition for guardian has to be set for a hearing and potentially there is a trial with testimony from doctors and possibly other witnesses,” says Gelman. 

For a conservatorship to be granted, there needs to be proof. 

For instance, in Chicago’s Cook County, in order to file a petition, a doctor’s statement claiming that the person is unable to manage his or her affairs or themself is required. Gelman says this is the case whether you are wealthy or not. 

“Celebrities aren’t treated differently than other people, there is just more of a following. Everyone has the same rights. At some point, in Britney’s case there had to be a medical professional saying she couldn’t handle some aspect of her affairs,” Gelman says. 

However, he notes that in Illinois, if you are a danger to yourself or to others, mental health proceedings may allow a doctor or law enforcement to hold you against your will in a psychiatric ward for a certain amount of time before you have a hearing. 

This can be a slippery slope, says Stephanie E. Johnson, MA, owner of NaviPsych and executive director of the Lee Thompson Young Foundation.

“Anytime legality is involved in mental health, especially given the history of this country, it’s always very tricky and a lot doesn’t get explained as people talk about it—the whole story and nuances,” Johnson says. 

Stephanie Johnson, MA

Anytime legality is involved in mental health, especially given the history of this country, it’s always very tricky and a lot doesn’t get explained as people talk about it—the whole story and nuances

She notes that in California, conservatorship is separated into mental health conservatorship, medical conservatorship, and general conservatorship. 

“For mental health conservatorship, no one can start the process unless a person is in a medical facility and medical staff starts the process. Then it goes through a hearing, and once it’s granted, there is another 30-day process to determine when a family member can take over what the medical staff has done to prepare the person to leave and be cared for,” she says. 

When it comes to celebrities dealing with mental health issues, she says privacy concerns come into play. In this case, Spears’s life is being blared across the world. 

“It is an injustice that so many people can have access to her private life, and this in a way could have impact on her mental health. Celebrities are not treated as human and are looked at as disposable,” says Johnson. 

The Right to End Conservatorship

When a person is placed under conservatorship, the conservator or guardian has to report on the person’s status to the court annually.

For instance, a guardian of the estate has to show a record of all the money that came in and all that was spent by providing the court with accounting. 

“Most times, the guardian needs court approval to do things like buy a car to drive the ward around,” says Gelman. 

For instance, if there is $20,000 in the estate, the court would not approve the purchase of an $18,000 car. The court’s decision would be based on the reasonableness of the request. 

Guardians of the person are legally required to submit a report, usually annually, which explains how the person’s treatment is going, what’s the plan for their future, and more. 

If a person like Spears wants to end his or her conservatorship, Gelman says legally they are asking to be “restored.”

“You always have the right to be restored. In other words, if I was in a coma for 6 years and needed someone to manage my affairs and talk with my doctor, but now I’m out of the coma and working as an accountant, so I no longer need a guardian, I should file a petition for restoration,” he says. 

Along with the petition, he says a doctor’s report is needed. For example, in the case of a coma victim, the doctor would need to report that the person had a rough 6 years and is now capable of taking care of himself or herself. 

“The judge most likely would restore this person to full capacity. But if you are declared a disabled incompetent person, you can’t contract and everything has to be supervised by your guardian,” Gelman explains. 

In Spears’ case, if her conservatorship started because she was unable to manage her assets, Johnson says, at this point, she has proven herself capable. 

“For someone like her who has been able to spend over a year making money and performing, something is wrong because her capacity to make decisions has been proven,” says Johnson. 

Can Conservatorships Help the Mentally Ill?

While conservatorships can be beneficial to people who are living with mental health conditions and who are unable to care for themselves, Johnson says Spears’ situation is the perfect example of the structure gone wrong. 

“The problem is typically when the person gets better, and they decide to go off their medications, assume their own responsibility to get the care and type of care they want. When this happens, there is usually some kind of disagreement around whether or not the person will maintain treatment,” she says.

In her practice, Johnson counsels many parents of adult children with mental health conditions. 

“I often talk to them about how at some point, we have to understand boundaries and we have to give our children their own respected dignity to choose their own process to make decisions, although we may not always like those decisions,” she says. “It’s allowing them the option to see if they can live the life they want that gives them best quality of life and peace, which is ultimately what all people want.” 

She points out that everyday people go through guardianship and conservatorship complications often. Sometimes people get denied conservatorship after someone has done everything unsafe for themselves and their family while others have the conservatorship restored even if the person is only incrementally better. 

Johnson believes that Spears speaking out can bring attention to everyday people going through conservatorship struggles.

“Britney’s leverage is to apply public pressure and shift the narrative. If she can demonstrate her capacity by articulating with sound judgement and clarity what her truth is, she can show that those with mental health issues can improve and care for themselves,” says Johnson. 

Stephanie Johnson, MA

Britney’s leverage is to apply public pressure and shift the narrative. If she can demonstrate her capacity by articulating with sound judgement and clarity what her truth is, she can show that those with mental health issues can improve and care for themselves

— Stephanie Johnson, MA

How to Avoid Conservatorship

Gelman says conservatorship cases are increasing in large numbers across the country due to people living longer.

“Before more individuals were dying before they became disabled. Now, people are living longer and have more problems, but they don’t prepare for them,” he says. 

The best way to avoid guardianships or conservatorships is to sign a Power of Attorney for Property and Power of Attorney for Health Care. 

“The nice thing about the powers of attorney is you can designate who would be your agent under a power of attorney, if you can’t pay your bills or talk to your doctor,” he says. “What most people don’t realize is that a spouse cannot consent to medical procedures or get medical information without having a Power of Attorney or be appointed by the court as the guardian.” 

He says the power of attorney process is easy and costs nothing or a few hundreds of dollars versus thousands of dollars to establish conservatorship. 

“Everyone over 18 should have powers of attorney for property and health care to avoid court involvement and keep your matters private. Obviously, Britney didn’t have adequate powers of attorney to direct what would happen if she became disabled,” said Gelman. 

Johnson agrees, but says shifts in attitudes toward mental health need to take place. 

“Once people get off sensationalizing Britney’s life, I hope we can look at what is wrong with conservatorships in some states, and find the people who can challenge this,” she says. 

She believes leaders in government working with mental health professionals is the best way toward policy change.

“For too long, legislators have been involved in making these kinds of decisions and mental health professionals have been blocked. I hope Britney coming forward will bring her freedom from the situation and open up the conversation about what we can do to help people live healthier lives,” Johnson says.

What This Means For You

Britney Spears speaking out about her conservatorship can bring awareness to the need for change, and the importance of signing a Power of Attorney.

Was this page helpful?