“I’m here to get rid of my dad and charge him with conservatorship abuse,” pop icon Britney Spears told a Los Angeles probate court on July 14th, at the latest hearing in Spears’ escalating 13-year campaign to end the conservatorships that have ruled her life since 2008.
Their relationship has only fractured further in recent years and on Monday, Spears officially filed paperwork tor remove her father Jamie from the conservatorship. But according to experts, whether Spears’ father will be removed and face criminal charges or civil penalties over what his daughter calls “abuse” are deeply complicated questions. (Until 2019, Spears’ father, Jamie, was in charge of both the conservatorship of Spears’ person and a separate one connected to her fortune.)
There are six ways to end a conservatorship like the one Spears has lived under for more than a decade, according to the California courts’ official guidelines. The majority of conservatorships, like the ones actor Mickey Rooney and radio host Casey Kasem both lived under, remain in place until the conserved person dies. But a conservatorship can also end if the conservator dies or resigns, or if the conservator bleeds the conservatee of all their assets (“Without assets, there may no longer be a need for a conservatorship of the estate,” the court helpfully explains.)
The only two options that don’t involve death, bankruptcy, or Jamie Spears voluntarily giving up control of his daughter’s $60 million estate are for the court to remove him as the conservator, or for a judge to determine that Spears is “able to handle […] her own affairs.” Both scenarios are rare, but what may be even rarer is for a conservator that has abused his position of power, as Britney has alleged, to be held accountable for their actions — exactly how rare, though, is impossible to say.
Four years ago, the Government Accountability Office tried, and failed, to determine the scope of conservatorship abuse in the United States. The extent of the problem, the report concluded, is “unknown due to limited data.” Conservatorships and guardianships are administered under a patchwork of different state laws, some that employ different rules and terminology. (In many states, conservatorship of a person is called a “guardianship.”) A prior report by the same office nonetheless found rampant abuse within the system, including “hundreds” of allegations of physical abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation by guardians. A close examination of just 20 of those cases found guardians stole $5.4 million in assets from 158 victims.
And while “conservatorship abuse” is not a legal term, Spears does have recourse she could pursue against her father, explains Josephine Gittler, a professor of law and the co-director of the Institute on Guardianship and Conservatorship at the University of Iowa. “The conservator has a legal and ethical obligation to do their job appropriately,” Gittler says. “Britney’s father is managing her $60 million estate, and if he misappropriates or misuses her assets or her funds, then he will be subject to criminal or civil liability under the laws of California — not, per se, for ‘conservatorship abuse,’ but because he has committed a crime that involves misuse or misappropriation of funds.” (Spears has publicly accused her father of approving the use of lithium to control her, of forcing her to work against her will, of threatening to cut off access to her children, and of refusing to allow her to remove her IUD or remarry. She has expressed outrage over her requirement to pay him for his work as a conservator, despite her vehement opposition to his involvement in her affairs and her efforts to have him removed. Spears has not formally accused her father of misappropriating her money.)
“Britney’s father is managing her $60 million estate, and if he misappropriates or misuses her assets or her funds, then he will be subject to criminal or civil liability” – Law professor Josephine Gittler
Spears currently has two different conservatorships: one of her fortune, and one of her person. Jamie Spears was the conservator of both until September 2019, when he resigned as conservator of her person, citing “personal health reasons.” (Jamie Spears’ colon ruptured in 2018.) Jodi Montgomery, a professional conservator who served alongside Jamie for several years, took full responsibility for overseeing Britney’s personal decisions at that time. Today, Jamie remains co-conservator of his daughter’s multimillion-dollar estate alongside the wealth management firm Bessemer Trust, which, amid increasing public scrutiny of the arrangement, asked to withdraw from the case last month. A judge has yet to rule on that request.
To prove that her father has abused his position of power, Spears and her legal team would have to show that he misappropriated or misused her money — but, Gittler says, a conservator would also be at fault if they overcharged for the work that they had done. “It also is a violation of the conservator’s responsibility and duties to charge excessive fees or unwarranted fees — fees for things that he or she really hasn’t done,” she says.
According to The New York Times, Jamie — who is responsible for approving all of the estate’s expenses — receives roughly $16,000 per month as a salary for his work as conservator, in addition to $2,000 monthly rent for his office. The Times also reports that Jamie received a 2.95 percent commission on his daughter’s 2011 Femme Fatale tour, which grossed $68.7 million, and 1.5 percent of the $138 million the singer earned on merchandise and ticket sales from her Las Vegas residency.
“The court is supposed to oversee and monitor what the conservator is doing and make sure they’re performing their duties and responsibilities appropriately and that the person under conservatorship is being cared for and protected,” Gittler says. “The court, for example, should be reviewing for the last 13 years what the conservator — in this case, Britney’s father — has been doing in managing her financial affairs, and the fees that he’s charging. And if he hasn’t been doing what he is supposed to do, the court should have stepped in.”
But she adds, “One of the problems with state guardianship and conservatorship systems is that the main safeguard for the care and protection of persons under conservatorship and guardianship is court monitoring and oversight of conservators and guardians — and, unfortunately, all too often that court monitoring has been ineffective.”
Notes written by the new judge in Spears’ case concerning other aspects of the conservatorship raise questions about how closely the court may have been paying attention over the past 13 years. As Rolling Stone previously reported, Judge Brenda Penney pointed out to Spears’ lawyer in April that a court order that would have given Spears’ conservator the power to make medical decisions on behalf of the pop star — an order which Spears’ former lawyer, Sam Ingham, believed was in effect — did not appear to have ever been filed in the case. (Ingham did not respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone.)
Spears’ family first pushed to put the pop singer in a conservatorship in 2008, during a meltdown documented by — and arguably caused by — relentless paparazzi attention at the height of the singer’s career. Her family’s concern at the time reportedly stemmed in part from the sway her manager Sam Lutfi held over the pop star’s finances, as well as allegations that he gave Spears drugs. (Lutfi has denied the accusation.)
“In my opinion, it’s not going to happen that she’s ever going to come out of this conservatorship. I don’t see it. There’s so much money at stake here,” says Catherine Falk, an activist who works with the National Association to Stop Guardianship Abuse but is not personally involved in Spears case. “Everybody’s profiting off of Britney Spears — even the courts are profiting off of her. It’s not in their best interest to just end this conservatorship. There’s so much money involved.”
“Everybody’s profiting off of Britney Spears — even the courts are profiting off of her. It’s not in their best interest to just end this conservatorship” – activist Catherine Falk
Falk is admittedly cynical about the conservatorship system. The daughter of Columbo actor Peter Falk became an activist for conservatorship reform after she was barred from visiting her father, who had been placed in a conservatorship administered by his second wife. Since then, she has advised the families of other celebrities grappling with the vagaries of the conservatorship system.
There are numerous examples of conservators who have been held accountable for abusing their positions, Falk says, but often, in her experience, not until the conservatee has died. She is leery, based on her own knowledge with the conservatorship system, that Spears will triumph in a suit against her father. “I just don’t think it’s possible,” Falk says. “Everything has to be granted and OK’d by the judge, and that’s the safeguard that these unscrupulous guardians have — being rubber stamped to conduct themselves in this manner. That’s the sad reality of it: There’s no protection.… She doesn’t really understand the well-oiled machine inside the probate system.”
Another obstacle to ending her conservatorship, Falk says, is Spears’ insistence that she not be forced to undergo a medical evaluation, as required by law. (Spears told the court in June that she wanted to end the arrangement without being examined.)
Years ago, Falk worked with the family of Randy Meisner to help the Eagles bassist end his temporary conservatorship. In Meisner’s case, Falk says, a medical evaluation helped convince the judge the arrangement was no longer necessary. That report was written by Dr. James Spar, the same L.A. psychiatrist whose 2008 evaluation laid the foundation for Spears’ conservatorship. (“He’s the most famous, reputable doctor for L.A. courts,” Falk says. Even Adam Streisand, whom Spears attempted to retain as her lawyer when the conservatorships went into effect in 2008, but who was barred by the judge on the basis of Spar’s report, told Rolling Stone he is “a very highly regarded psychiatrist.”)
“There’s no way a judge is going to let her out without being evaluated either by Dr. Spar or by a psychiatrist who is equally powerful in L.A. County as Dr. Spar,” Falk says.
The tragic irony of Spears’ case is that her best hope to free herself from the conservatorship may come from the intense media scrutiny that was responsible, in part, for creating the circumstances that pushed her into the conservatorship in the first place. If Spears succeeds at freeing herself from the conservatorship, Falk says, “it’s only because of the media attention and because of the scrutiny that this case received that millions of cases, just like hers, have not.”
“The fact that the judge is granting her a private attorney is unheard of in conservatorships.… Things are being done now that are just never done,” Falk adds. “I think the judge is doing that because of the media scrutiny.… It’s saving her — the media is literally giving her that lifeline.”