Britney Spears told a judge at a dramatic hearing Wednesday she wants an end to the conservatorship that has controlled her life and money for 13 years.
Here’s a look at how conservatorships operate, what’s unusual about hers, and why she and so many fans want to #FreeBritney.
HOW DO CONSERVATORSHIPS WORK?
When a person is considered to have a severely diminished mental capacity, a court can step in and grant someone the power to make financial decisions and major life choices for them.
California law says a conservatorship, called a guardianship in some states, is justified for a “person who is unable to provide properly for his or her personal needs for physical health, food, clothing, or shelter,” or for someone who is “substantially unable to manage his or her own financial resources or resist fraud or undue influence.”
The conservator, as the appointee put in charge is called, may be a family member, a close friend or a court-appointed professional.
HOW DOES SPEARS’ WORK?
With a fortune of more than $50 million comes secrecy, and the court closely guards the inner workings of Spears’ conservatorship.
Some aspects have been revealed in documents. The conservatorship has the power to restrict her visitors. It arranges and oversees visits with her sons, ages 14 and 15; father Kevin Federline has full custody. It has the power to take out restraining orders in her name, which it has used more than once to keep away interlopers deemed shady. It has the power to make her medical decisions and her business deals. She said at Wednesday’s hearing that she has been compelled to take drugs against her will, forced to use birth control and required to undertake performances when she didn’t want to.
Legally, Spears can get married, but the conservatorship must approve it as with other major life decisions. Spears said Wednesday that she wants to get married and have another child, but has been denied the chance to do either.
Like all California conservatorships, it’s subject to annual accountings and reviews from a court investigator.
WHO HAS POWER OVER SPEARS?
Her father has largely been in charge through the years, and the stereotypical image of a parent preying on a famous child’s fortune fuels the enmity against James Spears and the conservatorship, though his every move is scrutinized by the court.
From 2008 until 2019, he had power over her life choices, and he and attorney Andrew Wallet controlled her money. Now, he has financial control only, and must share that role with the Bessemer Trust, an estate-management firm. Jodi Montgomery, a court-appointed professional, now acts as conservator over her personal matters.
WHY ARE SO MANY CALLING TO #FREEBRITNEY?
Fans who dote on Britney Spears’ social media posts and public statements, trying to decipher her every utterance, dance move or shared meme, have increasingly coalesced into a movement after becoming convinced she was being controlled unfairly. Key were two women who in 2017 turned their hobby of picking apart Spears’ Instagram posts into a podcast, “ Britney’s ‘Gram.” It would help birth the hashtag #FreeBritney.
Hearings can bring dozens of protesters to the courthouse, carrying signs like “CONSERVATORSHIP IS SLAVERY” and “THIS IS TOXIC.”
James Spears has called the group conspiracy theorists, and says those who shout #FreeBritney don’t understand the totality of the situation.
Fans said after the most recent hearing that they felt vindicated by Britney Spears confirming much of what they have said.
WHY WAS IT IMPOSED IN THE FIRST PLACE?
In 2007 and 2008, shortly after she became a mother, she began to have very public mental struggles, with media outlets obsessed over each moment. Hordes of paparazzi aggressively followed her every time she left her house, and she no longer seemed able to handle it.
She attacked one cameraman’s car with an umbrella. She shaved her head at a salon. She lost custody of her children. When she refused to turn over her boys after a visit, she was hospitalized and put on a psychiatric hold. The conservatorship was put in place within days.
WHY HAS IT GONE ON SO LONG?
A conservatorship can always be dissolved by the court, though it’s rare that a person successfully asks to be released. The burden is on them to prove their competence. Spears told the judge Wednesday that she would like to be released without further evaluation, but there is virtually no chance of that happening.
They can last decades because the circumstances that lead to them, like traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, or dementia, are not things people just bounce back from. The mandatory secrecy of medical records has kept murky the reasons why Britney Spears must remain in hers, but it’s clear that it involves psychiatric issues. A recent filing said that she wasn’t capable of giving consent for medical treatment.
Spears’ father and his attorneys have emphasized that she is especially susceptible to people who seek to take advantage of her money and fame.
HOW DOES SPEARS FEEL ABOUT ALL OF THIS?
Before Wednesday, it was largely a mystery. But she revealed more in her 20 minute address to the judge than she has in the 13 previous years. She called the conservatorship “abusive” and “stupid.” She said it does “me way more harm than good.”
She said she wanted control of her own money and to do simple everyday things like ride in a car with her boyfriend. She said she wanted power over her psychotherapy. And that she wants her life back. “It’s been 13 years and it’s enough,” she said.
She did acknowledge in a court filing last year that it did have some value when it was first established, saying it “rescued her from a collapse, exploitation by predatory individuals and financial ruin” and made her “able to regain her position as a world class entertainer.”