The law has failed Britney Spears. The nearly 40-year-old celebrity has been locked in a “conservatorship”—which is the state of California’s word for a “legal guardianship” designed for the very old, very young, or mentally incapacitated—for 13 years, against her will. That conservatorship, controlled by her father, again, against her will, has been allowed to control Spears’s life in minute detail—including allegedly forcing unwanted birth control upon her—and none of the lawyers or judges involved has done a damn thing to stop it. Spears appeared in court, via telephone, this week to voice her objections to her continued conservatorship, and her story should lead to immediate lawmaking and change.
Believe me, I’m as surprised as anybody to find myself on this particular hill.
I’ll admit that the #FreeBritney movement—the group of fans who have been reading Spears’s Instagram page and bringing attention to her conservatorship—looked more like frenzied celebrity worshipers than legal reformers to me. But I think that I was wrong. The problems experienced by Spears are not unique to her situation. Indeed, Nichelle Nichols, best known as Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura, has been at the heart of a long legal battle, fought by her son, to wrest control of her estate from an agent who allegedly took advantage of her. Unknown numbers of seniors find their lives constricted, potentially by agents or family members acting in bad faith. And what we’re learning from Spears is that oversight into these arrangements leaves a lot to be desired.
At core, the conservatorship system allows the state to take control of a person’s decisions, once the state determines that the person is unfit to make their own choices. It’s a weird nether-region of law meant to deal with people who are well enough to be active members of society—they don’t need to be “institutionalized,” as they are not a danger to themselves or others—but somehow aren’t well enough to make important life decisions, like how to spend their own money. The arrangement seems a lot like the one my wife and I have with our 8-year-old: Yes, he can technically feed himself, but he would eat Popsicles and instant waffles until he died of scurvy, if left to his own devices.
The problem, somewhat obviously, is that Spears is not 8. She’s a grown woman who happens to have millions of dollars lying around. But conservatorship allows the state to designate a person to act a lot like her parent and tell her how she can take care of herself. Nearly all the powers I have over my kid the conservator has over Spears. In Spears’s case, that conservator is literally her father, Jamie Spears, who Britney claims is abusive.
You’d think the law would be particularly sensitive to claims that state-sanctioned conservators are being abusive towards their grown adult “conservatees,” especially in a state like California. The most populous state in the nation is also home to a disproportionate number of young “child stars,” who may be taken advantage of; older rich people with estates worth fighting over, who may be taken advantage of; and a veritable cesspool of agents and con artists willing to take advantage of those young, old, or troubled people. But it turns out that the California conservatorship system is rife with opportunities for abuse.
As I read it, the key problem is that once somebody gets put into a conservatorship, there is no good way for them to get out. In the Spears case, she was put into a conservatorship in 2008, after a series of very public episodes (something about an umbrella) and one very private one. After she lost custody of her two children to their father, Kevin Federline, she briefly refused to relinquish the kids after an approved visit. She was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward and was placed in a conservatorship days later.
At that point, Spears essentially lost her legal rights. The conservator’s power doesn’t extend just to financial or business matters. Conservators who have been given control “of the person” can dictate where the conservatee lives, how they dress, and whom they see. Legally, Spears’s father may indeed have control over some of Britney’s reproductive choices.
Just because the conservator has these rights doesn’t mean they need to execute them. Remember, conservatorship is something we should be doing only for people who are truly unable to care for themselves. Indeed, California’s own “Handbook for Conservators” says that the conservatee should “have as much independence as he or she can handle.” It emphasizes that conservators should work with the ward and make choices that reflect the ward’s “stated preference, personal independence, dignity, and lifestyle.”
That does not appear to have happened in the Spears case. Spears has claimed that her conservator has done everything from picking the color of her kitchen cabinets to refusing to let her remove her IUD. Despite executing this minute level of personal control, Spears’s conservatorship has deemed her able to handle the rigors of live musical performances. Spears has recorded albums and gone on tour even as her conservatorship has deemed her so thoroughly incapacitated that she can’t choose between color swatches. Spears has refused to perform since 2019, when her father became solely in charge of her conservatorship. Thankfully, our legal system’s tendency to prohibit behavior but only compel action as a last resort means that her father can’t force Spears to perform; he just gets control of her money when she does.
It’s worth noting that Spears is among the highest-profile people to be infantilized in this way—and is also a woman. That’s despite the fact that California is home to many narcissistic male movie stars who have battled substance abuse, acted like rank fools in public, and exuded the mental stability of a nuclear fuel rod deprived of water. I don’t feel like being sued today, so suffice it to say that I don’t see how Spears’s behavior that caused her to lose her rights was any worse than what a lot of men in Hollywood do.
But how can she get out? How can anyone? Absent the determination of some kind of permanent cognitive incapacity—like an actual hole in your head—I’d argue that something as restrictive as a forced conservatorship should be self-terminating: It should automatically lapse after a year or two or something. Instead, the law goes the other way: Conservatorships can last indefinitely until a court deems them no longer necessary. The court is supposed to send an inspector every year to determine if the conservatorship is still needed, and apparently the person overseeing the Spears case has determined that for the past 13 years Spears could sing and dance for millions of people but couldn’t be trusted to get a haircut.
Other than that nameless functionary doing the right thing, the only other way for Spears to get out of it is to petition the court to end the conservatorship. According to Spears herself, she didn’t know that was an option.
Here again is another way in which the conservatorship law is a Kafkaesque descent into absurdity. How can the law both say that a person can be stripped of their basic human rights because of mental incapacity, but then also rely on that person’s knowing their rights well enough to petition the court for relief? How is that supposed to work? Spears’s father can prevent her from going to the mall, if he wants, but she’s supposed to know she can go to court?
Obviously, the person who is supposed to know is not Spears but her lawyer. But even here, Spears was not free to make her own choice. Spears’s lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham, was appointed by the court, over Spears’s objection, 13 years ago. It’s not clear to me what Ingham has done for his client these 13 years, other than collect a check, but it sure seems like the #FreeBritney people have done more.
I shudder to think about how many older people are locked into these kinds of arrangements while the legal system ignores their complaints and waits for them to die. I wonder how many other women who can’t write a bop but are fit to care for themselves have been deemed too “hysterical” to make their own choices.
But because of the attention Spears brings to the issue, perhaps this is a moment to push some actual lawmaking to fix this system. I’ve already highlighted one obvious fix: Conservatorships should be self-terminating, and the burden should be on the conservator to prove that a new one is needed. That alone should solve the problem of rando court functionaries indefinitely rubber-stamping conservatorships and the problem of conservatees not knowing (or being told) their rights.
Another reform would involve splitting the conservator who is in charge of business and financial matters from the conservator who is in charge of personal matters. That would solve the specific problem of a manager, agent, or “dad” making decisions about a conservatee’s personal life so as to keep their cash cow up and running. Is Spears allegedly being prevented from having children because of her mental state? Or is it because Daddy wants to make sure she fits into a leather catsuit on the Vegas strip? Currently, the law provides no way to make that distinction. The conservator’s word and the investigator’s good faith are all that matters.
Finally, I’d make the bar for getting a conservatorship in the first place very high. We’re talking about a functional revocation of a person’s rights, when that person has committed no crime and when there is no obligation for a jury or the community to review the arrangement. It should be extremely hard for the state to do. “I’m going to e-mail that Nigerian prince back” or “I’m going to marry that sketchy back-up dancer” are very bad decisions, but not ones that should trigger a wholesale loss of personal freedom.
Given the current attention, the California legislature could package all these reforms together, call it the “not a Slave 4 U Act,” and get it passed tomorrow. This is California, after all. If they can’t figure out how to use celebrities as vehicles for the greater good, nobody will. free britney, and free your grandmother while you’re at it.