Since the age of 16, when she burst onto the music charts with her debut single, “…Hit Me Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears has been one of the world’s most famous and beloved pop stars. Yet despite her massive fame and fortune, Britney, who is now 39, has never truly had full control over her own life.
As most familiar with pop culture know by now, Britney has been living under a conservatorship for the past 13 years. Also known as “adult guardianship,” a conservatorship is a legal structure in which the court grants another person, in this case, Jaime Spears, Britney’s father, and other individuals, nearly complete control over her legal, financial, and personal decisions. The conservatorship was initially established in February 2008 after Britney suffered a mental breakdown, which resulted in her being briefly hospitalized.
A Total Loss of Control for Britney
Back in 2008, the court appointed Britney’s father and attorney Andrew Wallet as her co-conservators, as Britney was deemed mentally unfit to care for herself. The arrangement was originally meant to be temporary, but in October of that year, the conservatorship was made long-term, and her father has remained in nearly complete control of Britney’s life ever since.
Under the conservatorship, Britney’s father has the power to restrict her visitors; he is in charge of arranging and approving her visits with her own children; he has the authority to make her medical decisions; and he has the final say in all of her business deals, including when she works, and the complete authority over all of her financial matters.
As it stands, Britney’s current mental-health status remains unclear, and we can’t be sure whether or not she still requires someone to help her manage her financial and business affairs. But what is abundantly clear is that given the chance, Britney would have undoubtedly preferred to have some say in not only who should be in charge of making decisions on her behalf during her incapacity, but also how those decisions should be made.
Yet because Britney did not meet with an estate planning lawyer to create legal documents indicating who should make decisions for her if she could not make decisions for herself, a judge decided for her—and as you’ll read below, this has resulted in immense trauma for Britney and destroyed her relationship with her father. With this in mind, we will first discuss the latest details on Britney’s conservatorship and the impact the arrangement has had on the pop star’s life and career. Then, we’ll discuss how you can prevent something similar from happening to you and your loved ones using proactive estate planning and our Family Wealth Planning process.
Years Of Abuse And Conflict for brintney
Although there has been widespread speculation that Britney’s conservatorship was abusive, the exact details of her conservatorship have been kept private. Moreover, until very recently, Britney had never spoken publicly about her life under the arrangement.
Britney’s father and others involved with the conservatorship have consistently maintained the arrangement saved Britney from herself and others looking to exploit her when she was at her lowest point. They described how the conservatorship helped pull Britney out of debt and allowed her to earn a fortune estimated to be worth nearly $60 million. Plus, representatives for the conservatorship have noted that Britney could move to end the conservatorship whenever she wanted.
However, two shocking developments last month finally revealed just how much Britney has suffered under the conservatorship and how she has fought unsuccessfully for years to regain control of her life from her father. The first was a report published by the New York Times on June 22.
According to confidential court records obtained by the newspaper, Britney had expressed serious opposition to her conservatorship as early as 2014, and on multiple occasions, the pop icon pushed for her father to be removed from his position. The very next day in a public court hearing on June 23, Britney finally broke her silence, and what she described was stunning.
During an emotional 24-minute speech delivered via Zoom, Britney pleaded with Judge Brenda Penny to end the conservatorship under which she claimed she has endured years of abuse and exploitation, including having to take a powerful mood stabilizer that makes her feel drunk, being compelled to work while seriously ill, and being forced to remain on birth control, so she can’t have more children. (Read a full transcript of Britney’s testimony)
In response, Britney’s father vehemently denied any wrongdoing and insists he has been acting in his daughter’s best interests. In fact, a few days later, his lawyers filed a petition requesting the court investigate Britney’s allegations of abuse. According to the petition, if Britney’s claims prove true, then “corrective action must be taken,” and if not, then the conservatorship “can continue its course.”
A week later, Judge Penny denied Britney’s request to remove her father as conservator. However, the judge’s ruling was only in response to a filing by Britney’s lawyer made in November 2020 to have a wealth management company, Bessemer Trust, take over as sole conservator, and was not in response to Britney’s impassioned testimony. As it turns out, Britney’s court-appointed lawyer, Samuel Ingham, had yet to file a formal petition to terminate the conservatorship, but the judge said she would be open to such a filing.
According to CNN, Britney has since instructed Ingraham to immediately file the necessary paperwork in order to formally terminate the conservatorship once and for all. If filed, the judge could rule on Britney’s petition and her father’s request for an investigation in the next court hearing on the conservatorship, which was scheduled for July 14.
However, instead of filing the paperwork, the court appointed attorney resigned. The Superior Court judge accepted the resignation and determined that Britney could finally hire her own lawyer for representation in her ongoing conservatorship case. Spears selected former federal prosecutor and current entertainment lawyer Mathew Rosengart.
At the hearing, Britney by phone, Rosengart said he would be “moving promptly and aggressively” to remove the pop star’s father, Jamie Spears, from the conservatorship and end the court-approved arrangement that has been in place since 2008. Over the phone, Britney said her father was guilty of “conservatorship abuse” and said she’d been denied basic things like coffee and her driver’s license. An attorney for Jamie Spears said he had his daughter’s best interests in mind and denied that he had control of any aspect of her life other than her money.
In an Instagram post following the hearing, Britney Spears thanked her fans for supporting her and included the hashtag #FreeBritney.
A Broken System of guardianship & conservatorship
Britney’s story highlights the real potential for abuse that exists within the conservatorship and guardianship system. In fact, as has been widely reported, there have been dozens of highly publicized reports in recent years involving corrupt professional guardians, who exploit those under their care for their own financial gain. Yet, in those cases, the victims have nearly all been elderly, and their abusers were strangers. But Britney’s situation makes it clear that people of any age can fall prey to these restrictive legal arrangements, and the abusers can even be your own family members.
Furthermore, and perhaps the most puzzling part of the whole situation, is why someone as young and active as Britney is still living under a conservatorship. Conservatorships and guardianships are typically used to protect the elderly and mentally disabled who are incapable of making their own decisions and caring for themselves, and they often remain in effect until the person dies. This was the premise of the Netflix film titled “I Care A Lot” that I wrote about a while back.
Although Britney may have initially needed the conservatorship to protect her from her own poor decisions and others looking to take advantage of her in the aftermath of her breakdown in 2008, since then, the Grammy winner has worked almost nonstop and earned millions of dollars. In fact, over the past decade during which she was deemed “incapable of making her own decisions,” Britney has released four albums, headlined multiple world tours, performed nearly 250 shows in a Las Vegas residency, and served as a judge on the TV show “The X Factor.”
That said, due to the private nature of her conservatorship and the fact that Britney has never fully disclosed the specifics of her diagnosis, we don’t know the full circumstances of her mental health. Although there have been rumors and speculation that Britney is suffering from bipolar disorder, this has never been substantiated, and her medical records are sealed.
What’s more, although it was reported in 2019 that Britney checked herself into a mental health facility and was prescribed lithium, an older medication that’s used to treat bipolar disorder, according to court records obtained by the New York Times, this wasn’t entirely true. In 2019, Britney testified that she was forced into the facility against her will, and during her most recent testimony, she told the judge that she was forced to take the lithium against her wishes as well.
In the end, if Britney does petition to terminate her conservatorship, she will need to prove to the court that she currently possesses the capacity to handle her own life, health, and financial choices. In order to do this, however, Britney will almost certainly have to undergo another mental health evaluation, which would likely involve a court hearing and testimony from mental health professionals.
In an interview with the culture and music website Vulture, Tamar Arminak, a conservatorship attorney who worked on a similar conservatorship involving 27-year-old actress Amanda Bynes, said that the process to prove Britney’s capacity would likely involve a “mini-trial” to determine whether the conservatorship continues to be in the singer’s best interest.
“You have to present evidence and show a changed circumstance,” said Arminak. “You will have to have testimony from doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, and witnesses who will testify for you that you shouldn’t be under this conservatorship.”
Unfortunately, undergoing yet another mental health evaluation, which she called “stupid psych tests,” according to a report by NPR, is something Britney appears hesitant to do. Indeed, in her recent testimony, she made this point clear. “I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive… I want to end the conservatorship without being evaluated,” “I’m not willing to sit with anybody at this point to be evaluated,” Britney said. “I want to press charges for abuse. Instead of investigating my capacity, I want an investigation on my dad,” Britney told the judge.
According to Vanity Fair, a source close to Britney said the reason for Britney’s reluctance to undergo another mental health examination is due to the fact that she has had such poor experiences over the years with the doctors hired by her father. “She doesn’t have much trust for the doctors that she has worked with so far,” the source said. “She feels like they have failed her.”
The source went on to say that Britney’s reluctance to be evaluated is also one of the reasons her lawyer has yet to formally file the petition to end the conservatorship. After her past experiences with mental health professionals, it’s understandable that Britney would be hesitant to trust yet another doctor hired by her father or appointed by the court.
However, if Britney wants to finally be free and have full control over her life, that might be the only choice she has.
you can Avoid Britney’s Fate With Incapacity Planning
Although Britney still hasn’t filed the formal legal document seeking to end her conservatorship, which is required by law, her new lawyer, who was present at the latest court hearing, told the judge he plans to file the petition to remove Jamie Spears from the conservatorship. If so, the judge could rule on the petition in the next court hearing on the conservatorship, which is scheduled for September 29.
Whether it’s mental illness, age-related dementia, or a serious accident, we are all powerless to prevent the potential for incapacity. However, with the proper estate planning, you can at least have control over how your life, healthcare, and assets will be managed if something does happen. Moreover, such planning can also prevent your family from enduring the bitter conflict and expense that can result when you leave control over your life in the hands of the court like Britney did.
Working with us, your Personal Family & Legacy Lawyer, we can put an array of estate planning vehicles in place that would make it practically impossible for a conservator or legal guardian to ever be appointed—or even need to be appointed—against your wishes.
Use Estate Planning To Avoid Britney’s Fate
Although we’ll have to wait to find out whether the court will allow Britney to terminate the conservatorship without undergoing another psychiatric evaluation, as we noted earlier in this article, Britney could have been saved from the years of control by her father, if she had created a proper estate plan early on in her adult life.
In fact, using a variety of different estate planning vehicles, Britney could have not only chosen the person, or persons, who would be in charge of making decisions on her behalf during her incapacity, but she could have also created legally binding instructions stipulating how her assets and personal care should be managed during her incapacity. With the right planning, Britney could have even spelled out the specific conditions that must be met for her to be deemed incapacitated in the first place.
With this in mind, we are now going to discuss how you and your loved ones can use proactive estate planning to create a comprehensive plan for incapacity, so you can avoid suffering the same fate as Britney. And since a debilitating illness or injury could strike at any time, at any age, if you’ve yet to create your own incapacity plan, contact me, your Personal Family & Legacy Lawyer right away to get this urgent matter taken care of.
How to start Planning For Incapacity
When planning for your potential incapacity, the first thing to ask yourself is, “If I’m ever incapacitated and unable to care for myself, who would I want to make decisions on my behalf?” Specifically, you’ll be selecting the person, or persons, you want to make your healthcare, financial, and legal decisions for you until you either recover or pass away.
The most important thing to remember is that you must choose someone. Like we’ve seen with Britney, if you don’t legally name someone to make these decisions during your incapacity, the court will choose someone for you. And this is where things can get extremely difficult for you and your loved ones.
Although laws differ by state, in the absence of any estate planning, if you become incapacitated, the court will typically appoint a conservator or guardian to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf. As with Britney, this person could be a family member you’d never want managing your affairs, a professional guardian who charges exorbitant fees, or even a crooked professional guardian who abuses and exploits you for their own financial gain.
Furthermore, like most court proceedings, the process of naming a guardian can be quite lengthy, costly, and emotionally draining for your family. And this is assuming your family members agree about what’s in your best interest. If your family members disagree about the course of your medical treatment or managing your finances, this could lead to ugly court battles between your loved ones.
Such conflicts can tear your family apart and drain your estate’s finances. For an example of just how bad things can get, look at the case of Florida’s Terry Schiavo, who spent 15 years in a vegetative state after suffering a heart attack at age 26. Because Terry did not have a living will or health care directive indicating in writing how she would want medical decisions made for her in such an event, Schiavo’s young husband fought Terry’s parents in court for more than a decade for permission to remove her from life support before she was ultimately allowed to pass away.
You need A Comprehensive Incapacity Plan
Fortunately, such turmoil can be easily avoided through proper estate planning. Determining which estate planning strategies you should use to grant and guide this decision-making authority depends entirely on your personal circumstances. There are several options available, but choosing what’s best for you is something you should ultimately decide after consulting with an experienced lawyer like us because there are many considerations beyond simply whether to “pull the plug”, including how to handle such matters in the event of a pregnancy, whether to keep providing hydration and nutrition (and, if so, what kind), and how to determine incapacity. These, and other factors, are not typically addressed in a standard advance health care directive.
That said, we can tell you one estate planning tool that’s totally worthless when it comes to your incapacity—a will. A will only goes into effect upon your death, and then it merely governs how your assets should be distributed, so having a will does nothing to keep your family out of court and out of conflict in the event of your incapacity.
When it comes to creating your incapacity plan, your best bet is to put in place an array of different planning tools, rather than a single document. To this end, your plan should include some, or all, of the following:
Durable financial power of attorney: This document grants an individual of your choice the immediate authority to make decisions related to the management of your financial, business, and legal affairs, and can state how your affairs should be handled.
Revocable living trust: A living trust can immediately transfer control of your assets held by the trust to a person of your choice to be used for your benefit in the event of your incapacity. The trust can include legally binding instructions for how your assets should be managed, and the document can even spell out specific conditions that must be met for you to be deemed incapacitated.
Medical power of attorney: An advance directive that grants an individual of your choice the immediate legal authority to make decisions about your medical treatment in the event of your incapacity.
Living will: An advance directive that provides specific guidance about how your medical decisions should be made during your incapacity, including who should be able to see you and specifics regarding how you want your care to be handled. In some instances, a medical power of attorney and a living will are combined in a single document.
Documents alone Aren’t Enough
In the end, there’s one thing to remember about all of these documents—they are just documents, and they don’t provide your loved ones with a trusted advisor who is often needed to deal with all potential outcomes, and to navigate the legal system on your behalf. If you really want to keep your family out of court and out of conflict, you cannot just rely on documents to do it. Instead, these documents should be created by a lawyer like us who will get to know you, your wishes, and be there for you throughout the many stages of life—and ultimately be there for your family when you can’t be.
Furthermore, in addition to the above estate planning documents, it’s equally—if not more—important for your loved ones to be aware of your plan and understand their role in it. As part of the planning process, a Personal Family & Legacy Lawyer will hold a family meeting with all of the individuals impacted by your plan, where we walk them through your plan, explaining the reasoning behind your decisions and what they need to do if something happens to you.
In the end, you’ll find that the best protection comes from combining your comprehensive incapacity plan with a team of people who will care for you, can watch out for you, and know exactly what to do in the event tragedy strikes. As your Personal Family Lawyer, we can guide and support you to put in place both of these elements. In doing so, it would make it virtually impossible for a conservator or legal guardian to ever be appointed—or even need to be appointed—against your wishes, and instead, we will create a robust plan that would allow you to stipulate how your life, healthcare, and assets should be managed if you ever become unable to manage them yourself.
Timing Is Everything
Keep in mind that your incapacity plan must be created well before you become incapacitated. You must be able to clearly express your wishes and consent in order for these planning documents to be valid, and even slight levels of mental illness or dementia could get them thrown out of court.
Plus, as we mentioned earlier, an unforeseen accident or illness could strike at any time no matter your age, so don’t wait—contact us right away to get your incapacity plan started.
Finally, it’s vital that you regularly review and update your estate plan to keep pace with changes to your life, family dynamics, and the law. If any of the individuals you’ve named becomes unable or unwilling to serve for whatever reason, you’ll need to revise your plan accordingly, and we can help with that, too.
Let Britney’s Story Be A Lesson
Although Britney’s story is certainly tragic and we can’t be sure how it will ultimately play out, her case has at least shined a spotlight on the potential for abuse that exists within the conservatorship and guardianship system. In fact, Britney’s case has already inspired lawmakers at both the state and federal level to take a closer look at adult guardianships and push for increased oversight and transparency for these legal arrangements.
As one Congresswoman from Massachusetts told Politico, “If this could happen to someone who is as famous as Britney Spears, I mean, think about what’s happening to regular Americans. We need to pull back the curtain on this.” said Rep. Lori Trahan.
By the same token, Britney’s story should inspire you to make certain that you and your loved ones have the proper estate planning strategies in place to prevent the loss of autonomy, family conflict, and potential for abuse that comes with court-ordered conservatorships and guardianships.
To this end, if you’ve yet to plan for incapacity, schedule a Family Wealth & Legacy Planning Session right away, we, your Personal Family Lawyer, can advise you about the most suitable estate planning vehicles to put in place. And if you already have an incapacity plan prepared—even one created by another lawyer—we can review it to make sure it’s been properly set up, maintained, and updated. Contact us, your Personal Family Lawyer today to plan for your life.
This article is for information only and should not be considered legal advice. It is a service of KC Legacy Law and Michael Jahn, Personal Family Lawyer. We do not just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth & Legacy Planning Session, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.