Whether it’s the #FreeBritney movement’s interpretations of Britney Spears’ Instagram posts or news items about her father’s rapid-fire legal filings to stay her sole conservator — a status allowed to continue as of this week — the debate over who should control Spears’ money and daily existence will seemingly continue for some time.
Spears has some star-spangled support in either the bid for her freedom or even mere transparency about the conditions of her ongoing legal status and how she might emerge from it. Miley Cyrus, Ariel Winter, Ruby Rose, Paris Hilton, Cher, Kacey Musgraves, the American Civil Liberties Union and around 110,000 other people have publicly called for Spears’ release from the conservatorship. Apparently, they aren’t convinced by the Los Angeles Times investigation from last year that found no independent evidence that Spears or her financial holdings were being harmed by the arrangement.
The problem, however, is likely not that her assets are being actively mismanaged — which should be easy enough for one of the court’s evaluations to uncover — nor that she is being actively abused. Rather, there are emotional costs of a long-term conservatorship, especially to an otherwise capable person, and that damage rarely appears in court evaluations or public records.
Probate courts create conservatorships — in some states it’s called guardianship — when they rule that an adult is so ill or mentally unstable that they’re incapable of taking care of their basic needs. The court appoints another person — sometimes an attorney, sometimes a family member — to manage that person’s affairs. Managing someone’s assets is called conservatorship of the estate; making decisions about their health and relationships is called conservatorship of the person. Spears is subject to both.
There are emotional costs of a long-term conservatorship, especially to an otherwise capable person, and that damage rarely appears in court evaluations.
The major issue with a conservatorship is that it strips a person of the legal rights to even fight it; to hire an attorney, the person subject to a conservatorship needs permission from the court, but she also lacks standing to bring suit on her own. That’s why most conservatorships survive until death: The people subject to them often lack the legal ability to escape from them.
I should know: From 2005 to 2014, both my person and my estate were legally conserved in the Probate Court of New Haven, Connecticut.
It started when my parents disagreed with my decision to fight criminal charges that were brought against me. (I was eventually convicted but my case remains on appeal.) For a period of time as part of the conservatorship, I was medicated against my will, I could not choose my own doctors or lawyers and I had no right to enter into a lease or even an employment contract of my own choosing. I was legally considered too disabled to be capable of making any of my own decisions.
It was one of the worst times of my life — and there’s stiff competition for that label, given that I served six years in a maximum security prison. To be told that you can’t be trusted with money or a car is hurtful. But to be told that you can’t be trusted with the right to self-determination or your own choices is devastating. It’s a total negation of your humanity.
About 1.3 million people find themselves in these arrangements in the United States; $50 billion of their assets are controlled by someone else. We know nothing about their ages, gender or diagnoses — or even if they have official diagnoses in every case — because the data on these legal arrangements is practically nonexistent.
To strip a person of her agency can’t help but be abusive, even when fiduciaries are doing their jobs.
Since there’s no official survey of the number of people living under such court orders, it’s impossible to tell if such guardianship arrangements are used in gender or racially disproportionate patterns. The few studies on it examine the relationship’s effect on the system, not on the people in these arrangements. Unquestionably, we need more data from the various guardianship systems to begin to assess whether they are functioning well for all the people subject to them — but they are assuredly not.
We do know that a good number of people under the control of conservatorships likely don’t need to be, and that even more don’t need full guardianship. In 2018, Syracuse law professor Nina Kohn testified as much to the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
An important part of Kohn’s testimony was that often even unintentional harm comes from these relationships: To strip a person of her agency can’t help but be abusive, even when fiduciaries are doing their jobs.
So even if Spears’ father and long-time co-conservator, Jamie Spears, isn’t doing anything legally wrong, that doesn’t mean the conservatorship he’s overseen honors his daughter’s dignity. Focus has fallen on Spears’ finances and her mental health status, but many aspects of her life are no longer her own.
For example, she reportedly can’t have an iPhone. And, while the tabloids are often filled with gossip about Spears, her boyfriend Sam Asghari and whether they might become engaged, they have always missed one huge point about a conservatorship: While she’s under one, Spears may not legally be able to consent to marriage without approval. (As a legal matter, it’s not even clear that she, or anyone under a conservatorship, can consent to sexual intimacy without approval.)
Conservatorships’ message is clear: People who are deemed disabled aren’t allowed to behave like full persons.
Even though Jamie Spears isn’t doing anything legally wrong, that doesn’t mean that the conservatorship he’s overseen honors his daughter’s dignity.
That’s why there’s strong anecdotal evidence that people improve and even thrive when they’re released from conservatorship controls. The humanizing effect of being granted the authority to make even the smallest decisions can be drastic. As someone forced into one myself, I would expect that, with time and some assistance she seeks out of her own accord, we would come to see a self-possessed woman if Spears’ conservatorship were removed.
It is, of course, fair to wonder why Spears herself hasn’t formally petitioned to terminate the conservatorship. As her father and his attorney have noted, she chafes against the arrangement but hasn’t asked to be freed. (She has asked the court to remove her father as her conservator.)
If Spears’ conservatorship is anything like mine, it can be — or even just feel — more punitive than it is protective. In my case, any disagreement with my conservator landed me in a psychiatric hospital, even though I became the caretaker for my conservator when he suffered a stroke and couldn’t drive himself.
Spears, meanwhile, has clearly been competent enough to complete three years of a Las Vegas residency and serve as a judge on “The X Factor” — but, like many of us, she might wonder after years in a conservatorship if she really is capable of deciding matters herself. Or she may fear seeing her relatively scant privileges revoked if she speaks up. (Her lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III — whom she was only allowed to hire last month — told the court on Tuesday, “My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father.”)
Conserving and appointing guardians to oversee the affairs of people who can’t handle their lives without assistance is a necessary part of humane society; requiring people who truly can’t function for one reason or another to negotiate their way through daily life would be cruel.
But it’s just as cruel to take away the rights and personhood of a person who merely disagrees on what the right decision is for them, or makes not-so-great decisions. Spears might have done some outrageous and dangerous things in the past — driving with a child on her lap, barricading herself inside her home — and she clearly had a public meltdown. But that behavior seems to be more of a response to the trauma of child stardom, young motherhood and relentless paparazzi. And, like many people in Hollywood, her family’s concerns that people were taking or could take advantage of her wealth, good nature and mental health challenges aren’t without precedent.
But Spears hasn’t been allowed the most basic human right: the right to err, and then grow and improve from that erring. People grow and change not in spite of their bad decisions, but because of them — if we allow them to.
It’s long past time for the Probate Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court to cut Spears’ conservator cord. Even if she has ongoing challenges (and who among us doesn’t), she’s clearly a competent professional who is capable of making mostly good decisions. Someone with her wealth — a reported $59 million — can and will likely hire people of her own choosing as competent as her conservators to manage her money and schedule anyway; it’s not as if she’ll proceed through life without assistance.
But she will proceed, finally, on her own. That will likely make all the difference.