Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images
The case of Britney Spears has turned a harsh spotlight on conservatorship, the legal arrangement under which her father controls her finances and her life.
In a passionate plea Wednesday to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Spears requested an end to the long-running conservatorship, saying she is exploited, can’t sleep, is depressed and cries every day.
“All I want is to own my money, for this to end,” she said.
Spears’ conservatorship dates to 2008, stemming from mental health crises at the time. It was created as a probate conservatorship in which her father, Jamie Spears, had control over her person and her estate.
This arrangement requires her estimated $60 million fortune to be controlled by her father, who has legal power to negotiate business opportunities and other financial arrangements. Since 2019, Jodi Montgomery, a professional appointed by the court, has acted as temporary conservator over Spears’ personal matters.
To understand more about conservatorships and when they’re used, we spoke with Leslie Salzman, a clinical professor of law at Cardozo School of Law and an expert on elder law, disability law and conservatorships.
What are conservatorships?
A conservatorship, also known as a guardianship, is a legal mechanism set up for people who are unable to manage their affairs.
“They’re suffering harm as a result of that inability, and they’re unable to understand and appreciate the nature and consequences of their inability to manage their affairs,” Salzman tells NPR.
California, where Spears’ case is, defines conservatorship this way: “a court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the “conservator”) to care for another adult (called the “conservatee”) who cannot care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances.”
If a judge grants the conservatorship, the conservator can assume the powers authorized under the order for the duration and scope that is established.
But a conservatee does not lose all their rights.
“When a person becomes a conservatee, he or she does not necessarily lose the right to take part in important decisions affecting his or her property and way of life,” the Judicial Council of California’s Handbook for Conservators says. “All conservatees have the right to be treated with understanding and respect and to have their wishes considered. They have all basic human rights, as well, and the right to be well cared for by you.”
“Conservatorship means the court is taking away the civil liberties from one person and giving them to someone else,” Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Disability Rights Project, said in a blog post last year. “But it is the court weighing into the person’s life and saying you, as a person with a disability, are no longer able to make decisions about yourself and livelihood — such as where you live, and how you support and feed yourself — and we are putting someone else in charge of making those decisions.”
In many situations, this step is extreme and one that should be done as a “last resort,” Brennan-Krohn said. “And once a court has put a person under a conservatorship, only a court can lift that conservatorship.”
Spears’ conservatorship is unusual
Conservatorships are often used for people who have a severe cognitive impairment. Often those people are older, such as those with severe dementia. Guardianships are also appointed for people with significant developmental disabilities.
Spears, 39, is not the typical person under conservatorship. A famous pop star since her teens, she has spent the past 13 years releasing albums, judging The X Factor and making an estimated $138 million performing in Las Vegas.
Not all the facts are known in the case, but Spears’ situation is far from typical.
“Usually it’s not an individual who is young, who is working, who is very successful in their field — because that suggests a level of capability that wouldn’t meet the standard for legal incapacity,” Salzman says.
“It seems quite unusual that you would have a person who was capable of going out and doing all the kinds of professional activities she was doing, who is found to be totally incapable of managing either her personal or property affairs.”
Mike Windle/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
There have been significant reforms to guardianship laws in recent decades. One such reform is the principle that guardianship should only extend to those areas of the person’s functioning that they cannot manage on their own.
“It’s supposed to be a narrowly tailored order, and the court is always supposed to use the least restrictive alternative,” Salzman says.
But in Spears’ case, she notes, the conservatorship appears to cover all aspects of her personal affairs and her property management, “and it does not look like the court has entertained least restrictive alternatives.”
Alternatives could include allowing Spears to manage at least some portion of her estate and her money, Salzman says. She could also work with a financial manager who could do some reporting to the court.
Guardians should be acceptable to the person under guardianship
While individuals under guardianship don’t necessarily select their guardian, Salzman says, “they can certainly recommend and they can state who they would like to be their guardian. And the court is supposed to give significant consideration to that request.”
That doesn’t seem to have happened in Spears’ case.
The singer has been suggesting as early as 2014 that her father be removed from his prime role in the conservatorship, according to reports, and in 2020 she asked the court to suspend her father from his role as conservator. She refused to perform if he remained in charge of her career.
A family member is often named as the guardian. But there can also be an institutional guardian, such as bankers or professional guardians.
Courts oversee the guardianship. A court investigator will periodically interview the individual in the conservatorship and determine the conservator is acting properly.
“Especially where the person is going to be your guardian over personal affairs, it’s very important that the person be acceptable to the individual under guardianship,” Salzman says.
Ending guardianships can be difficult
Guardianship laws have provisions for seeking the termination of the guardianship. For example: Someone makes a motion to the court, petitioning the court to end the guardianship. It could be done by the individual under guardianship.
“But it tends to be a somewhat more complicated process than I would say is necessary. You usually need a lawyer,” Salzman says.
The process can be difficult.
“If the individual wants to terminate the guardianship, the burden should be on the party opposing the termination [to make the case it needs to continue]. But what happens as a matter of practice, often, is that the individual is placed in the position of having to establish that they no longer need the guardian,” Salzman says.
And while guardianships should ideally be set up for a specific length of time, she says, that’s often not what happens.
Instead, guardianship orders are often entered for an indefinite period of time, and the individual under guardianship must prove they no longer need it.
When the individual is rich, there’s a potential conflict of interest
A guardian is supposed to describe the ways in which the individual has regained capacity in annual reports to the court, Salzman says.
But money can create a different incentive. The guardian might oppose steps that would significantly modify the guardianship and result in a loss of income to the guardian.
“Especially where there’s significant ongoing income and the guardian is benefiting from that income, there is some conflict of interest because they have a financial stake in the continuation of the guardianship,” she says.
In the case of Spears, her father/guardian is not only making her personal decisions — he’s also her business manager.
“You would really want someone who is acceptable to her,” Salzman says.
She notes there is a trend toward avoiding guardianships entirely, and instead having a person or a handful of people who can assist with individual transactions and decision-making. But either way, the individual is supposed to be involved in those decisions, Salzman says.
“Even when a guardian is appointed under most guardianship laws, the guardian is supposed to follow the wishes of the individual to the greatest extent possible. So they’re supposed to consult with them,” she says, “to understand their needs and their wishes and to act consistently with those.”
NPR’s Jaclyn Diaz contributed to this report.