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Custody or Captivity? Britney Spears and the Problem with California’s Conservatorship Laws

Britney Spears performing at her Piece of Me residency in Las Vegas in 2014.
Britney Spears performing at her Piece of Me residency in Las Vegas in 2014. By Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By Zachary J. Lech, Contributing Writer

“Britney Spears hospitalized again”, “Britney on 72-Hour Mental Lockdown”, “Diagnosing Britney Spears,” “Sources: Spears suffering from bipolar disorder.” These news headlines from early 2008 covered the public struggle which, on Feb. 1 of that year, led a California court to hand over control of Britney Spears’ life and finances to her father, Jamie.

Conservatorships are a legal concept governed by state law whereby a court appoints a person or organization called a conservator to care for another person, a conservatee, who is deemed incapable of caring for themselves or their financial affairs. The state of California, in particular, differentiates between the so-called Lanterman-Petris-Short conservatorships (used for individuals with serious mental illness who need special care) and probate conservatorship, which can be either temporary or permanent and covers the person’s life, estate, or both.

When a judge made Britney Spears’ controversial probate conservatorship permanent after eight months, People magazine ran quotes from sources that stated, “This is by no means something that’s going to last forever” and that “People shouldn’t read too much into the word ‘permanent’.” Now in 2021, with the #FreeBritney movement growing, The New York Times’ “Framing Britney Spears” documentary coming out, and the next hearing in the ongoing legal battle scheduled for Apr. 27, one thing seems clear. What was expected to be a temporary arrangement turned into a 13-year-long conservatorship that has left Britney Spears with no legal control over her finances and limited control over her personal life.

What that means in practice is that Britney Spears needs her father’s approval for the most mundane things, be it a purchase of a hypothetical caramel frappuccino or a slightly less hypothetical iPhone, which the singer with a $60 million dollar net worth was actually denied until 2019. That on its own wouldn’t be a problem, however. If Britney’s conservatorship were a typical case, it would be clear why she shouldn’t be allowed to spend her money. Permanent conservatorships are restricted to incapacitated individuals, unable to manage their lives, usually the elderly or people suffering from untreatable mental illness or extensive dissability. Spears’ case is anything but typical, though. “From the little I saw and have seen of Britney Spears, there's no way she would, in my mind, qualify for conservatorship under normal circumstances,” said Don Slater, a California attorney specializing in conservatorships, in an interview with Vice.

Indeed, it’s hard to understand how Spears’ conservatorship has lasted so long, as she clearly is and has been well enough to continue working. In the past 13 years, Britney Spears has done everything from being a judge on “The X Factor” and releasing three new albums to raising a million dollars for the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation and engaging in social activism landed her an award from GLAAD in 2018.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to understand why the arrangement is still in place despite doubts over its ethics. While there are legal avenues for the conservatee to end or change the conservatorship by filing a motion in court, these avenues are useless in practice while the arrangement continues. Conservatorship takes away an individual’s right to enter contracts. This might sound innocent enough, but it means that the conservatee cannot hire an attorney without a court’s express permission. In Britney’s case, that meant an uphill legal battle against her father, who controlled her money, just to be able to get a lawyer to represent her. And that has only been the beginning of a long fight. Samuel Ingham, Spears’ court-appointed attorney, sued seeking to replace Jamie Spears as the conservator on Aug. 17, 2020, and there’s still no resolution on the horizon.

“Wouldn’t it be something if the giants of mental health care reform in California turned out to be three men named Lanterman, Petris and Short — and a pop singer by the name of Britney Spears?” asked Patt Morrison in his LA Times article, wondering if the singer’s case could be the push needed to change California’s flawed conservatorship laws. Nothing has come to pass yet. But perhaps now, 13 years after Morrison's piece was originally published, and with more public attention than ever, Britney Spears’ lawsuit could change more than just her conservator: It might impact a California law that can turn custody into captivity with almost no way of regaining control.

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