Will Britney Spears Ever Be Free?

Will Britney Spears Ever Be Free?

A Guide to Understanding Celebrity Conservatorships

America loves celebrity gossip.  So who hasn’t been following the conservatorship drama surrounding Britney Spears in Los Angeles probate court?  The #Free Britney movement has led to an explosive New York Times documentary on  FX and Hulu called “Framing Britney Spears.”   The media, always ready to dig up old dirt, has used the occasion to remind us of other celebrities who have either been the subject of a conservatorship or who have had family members who have contemplated seeking a conservatorship. For months there was speculation that Charlie Sheen’s father Martin would seek a conservatorship because of his concerns over his son’s excessive partying, and drug and alcohol use.   When Lindsay Lohan had multiple DUI arrests including jail time, there was talk of a conservatorship.   Peter Falk was under a conservatorship due to Alzheimer’s disease. Actress Amanda Bynes has been the subject of a conservatorship after several months of incoherent rants on social media culminating in allegedly setting her own dog on fire in the driveway of a stranger’s home in Thousand Oaks.  

These vivid and often tragic situations drive everything from sincere concern to sordid voyeurism.  But it’s an interest that’s unusually poorly informed.  Fans wonder why someone as successful as Britney Spears would need a conservatorship, and often reach the false conclusion that  conservatorships are simply a tool to control the bad or erratic behavior of others.   But do conservatorships work?   Does a conservatorship ever end?   Britney Spears has been the subject of a conservatorship for more than 12 years. Will Britney ever be “free?”  The answers lie in the law, not in the tabloids.

            Most conservatorships in California are either a probate conservatorship of the person and the person’s “estate” (that is, their assets), or a mental health “LPS conservatorship,” named after the Lanterman Petris Short Act, the law that permits them.   Probate conservatorships are designed to protect individuals who cannot make health care decisions on their own or are unable to manage their own money and are vulnerable to undue influence.   Nearly all probate conservatees are either elderly or developmentally disabled.  The court can only grant a probate conservator the power to place the conservatee in a secure perimeter facility (sometimes unkindly called “lock up”) or authorize psychotropic medications upon a showing by a physician that the conservatee suffers from a neurocognitive disorder such as dementia.  But probate conservators generally cannot force a conservatee into drug or alcohol treatment, and generally cannot choose the conservatee’s friends or limit the conservatee from choosing his/her own girlfriend or boyfriend.

            In contrast, LPS or mental health conservatorships are designed to protect the mentally ill by providing an evaluation and, if necessary, individualized treatment, supervision, and placement.   Individualized treatment can involve involuntary placement in a psychiatric hospital and involuntary administration of psychotropic medication.  With few exceptions, family members cannot seek an LPS Conservatorship – only law enforcement, a judge, and certain mental health professionals can initiate the process.   To be considered for an LPS conservatorship, the proposed conservatee must either be a danger to self, danger to others, or suffer from a grave disability that means he or she is no longer able to provide for his or her own food, clothing and shelter due to a mental health disorder.   While one purpose of the LPS Act is to protect the public (including overwhelmed and distraught family members), the primary purpose of the act is to ensure that the liberty interests of the proposed conservatee are protected.    LPS evaluations or holds, and LPS conservatorships, are extremely difficult to obtain, and the objective throughout the process is to stabilize the mentally ill patient and restore them to their rights and  to return the individual to the community for ongoing support of his/her family and outside mental health care providers.  Throughout the process,  mental health care providers will almost always decline to force someone into treatment if there are adequate alternatives, such as support of family members or outside physicians to protect the individual with a mental illness.   In the rare instance when an LPS conservatorship is granted, it will terminate at the end of a year by operation of law unless there is a showing that another twelve-month renewal is necessary to protect the conservatee.

            Consequently, involuntary treatment and forced medication through an LPS conservatorship is not readily available to family members and business managers concerned about celebrities behaving badly or making poor business decisions.   Involuntary treatment or an LPS conservatorship is only for those individuals when all other treatment and support options are not available or have been exhausted.

            Britney Spears is the subject of a probate conservatorship for reasons that prominently played out in the media.   In 2007 she began acting erratically after her divorce from Kevin Federline and the court awarded custody of their two children to Mr. Federline.   Britney Spears began partying in public; she shaved her head while the paparazzi snapped photos; she smashed a photographer’s car with an umbrella; and was in and out of rehab.    Finally, in February 2008, it was reported that Britney Spears was placed under a psychiatric hold after a widely filmed stand-off with the police when she refused to surrender her sons to Mr. Federline.  

            Shortly after the psychiatric hold, Britney Spears was deemed stable enough for release and to manage her own health care, but her father, Jamie Spears, was granted a probate conservatorship over her estate and business holdings.  That conservatorship of the estate remains in effect.  Britney has never been the subject of a probate conservatorship of the person, which means there has never been sufficient evidence to take away her power to make medical decisions or limit her ability to determine where she lives.

            Because the court was convinced that Britney Spears could not manage her money and business affairs and that she was vulnerable to undue influence, it granted her father broad powers  over her estate. According to court documents, Britney Spears has a net worth over $59 million, and maintains an empire of recording and performance contracts and celebrity endorsement deals.  Britney Spears does not control any of her own financial or career decisions.  Since November 2020, her father is no longer the sole conservator, but instead all decisions are now made jointly by her father and the Bessemer Trust as co-conservators.  Britney Spears has consistently opposed her father’s role as conservator and has expressed a preference that a private professional fiduciary be appointed sole conservator. She has stated that she will not perform in public until her father is removed as conservator.  Nevertheless, she has never sought a termination of the conservatorship in court.  

            Britney Spears’ probate conservatorship will continue until she takes steps to end it.   If she filed a petition for termination in court, the court would ask the court investigator to weigh in on whether she could manage her estate without the assistance and protection of the court.  Britney Spears would need to demonstrate that she could truly manage on her own.   Given the size of the estate and the conflict between Ms. Spears and her father, it may be a long while before Britney is truly free.

            Ms. Spears’ circumstances show that Conservatorships cannot solve every problem for a loved one.   A conservatorship is not appropriate over, for instance, a twenty-year-old son who continually picks the wrong girlfriend and foolishly spends money.   A conservatorship is not generally appropriate for misbehaving celebrities.  LPS conservatorships are designed for the mentally ill who have truly run out of options and resources and whose life may be at risk absent involuntary treatment.   Probate conservatorships are most appropriate for the elderly, and the developmentally disabled who cannot fend for themselves without the protection of the court through a conscientious conservator. 

Jack Osborn

Jack B. Osborn is a Partner with Brown White & Osborn LLP and his practice focuses on probate. He is currently the President of the San Bernardino County Bar Association as well as the Chair-Elect of the Conference of California Bar Associations. Mr. Osborn is frequently called as an expert before the California legislature on proposed probate legislation.
Jack Osborn