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Britney Spears reveals all on conservatorship: how do they work and what did she say?

·7-min read
Britney Spears at the Los Angeles premiere of
Britney Spears at the Los Angeles premiere of

When Britney Spears, who turns 40 this year, spoke to a Los Angeles judge at her own request on Wednesday it was 13 years into a court-enforced conservatorship that has exercised vast control of her life and $50million fortune.

But what did she reveal and what is a conservatorship, exactly?

Here's a look at how conservatorships operate, what's unusual about hers, and why the cry to #FreeBritney keeps getting louder.

What did Britney say?

In an emotional 23-minute address by phone, the singer said: “I’ve lied and told the whole world I’m okay and I’m happy.

“I’ve been in denial. I’ve been in shock. I am traumatised,” she said. “I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry it’s insane. And I’m depressed. I cry every day.”

This courtroom sketch shows Judge Brenda J. Penny presiding over participants, virtually appearing on a screen, during the hearing of Britney Spears' guardianship (AFP via Getty Images)
This courtroom sketch shows Judge Brenda J. Penny presiding over participants, virtually appearing on a screen, during the hearing of Britney Spears' guardianship (AFP via Getty Images)

The mother-of-two said she wanted to marry her boyfriend and have another baby but accused her conservator of stopping her from having a contraceptive intrauterine device (IUD) removed so she could get pregnant.

“I feel ganged up on and I feel bullied and I feel left out and alone,” she told the court. “I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does, by having a child, a family, any of those things.”

Britney also alleged she was forced onto common bi-polar medicine Lithium against her wishes. Adding the medication made her feel drunk and unable to speak properly.

“It’s embarrassing and demoralizing what I’ve been through, and that’s the main reason I didn’t say it openly,” Ms Spears said. “I didn’t think anybody would believe me.”

She begged forgiveness from the judge for her “ignorance” saying she didn’t realise she could petition to end the arrangement.

Speaking so fast from a prepared statement Britney was asked to slow down by the judge for the sake of the court stenographer. “Now I’m telling you the truth, OK?” I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry it’s insane.”

How do conservatorships work?

When a person is considered to have a severely diminished mental capacity, a court can step in and grant someone the power to make financial decisions and major life choices for them.

California law says a conservatorship, called a guardianship in some states, is justified for a "person who is unable to provide properly for his or her personal needs for physical health, food, clothing, or shelter," or for someone who is "substantially unable to manage his or her own financial resources or resist fraud or undue influence."

The conservator, as the appointee put in charge is called, may be a family member, a close friend or a court-appointed professional.

How does Spears’ conservatorship work?

Jamie Spears (AP)
Jamie Spears (AP)

With a fortune of more than $US50 million comes secrecy, and the court closely guards the inner workings of Spears' conservatorship.

Some aspects have been revealed in documents. The conservatorship has the power to restrict her visitors. It arranges and oversees visits with her sons, ages 14 and 15; father Kevin Federline has full custody. It has the power to take out restraining orders in her name, which it has used more than once to keep people away. It has the power to make her medical decisions and her business deals.

Legally, Spears can get married, but the conservatorship must approve it as with other major life decisions.

Like all California conservatorships, it's subject to annual accountings and reviews from a court investigator.

Who has power over Spears?

Her father has largely been in charge through the years, and the stereotypical image of a parent preying on a famous child's fortune fuels the enmity against James Spears and the conservatorship, though his every move is scrutinized by the court.

From 2008 until 2019, he had power over her life choices, and he and attorney Andrew Wallet controlled her money. Now, he has financial control only, and must share that role with the Bessemer Trust, an estate-management firm. Jodi Montgomery, a court-appointed professional, now acts as conservator over her personal matters.

What has the reaction been?

After requesting a recess following Spears’s remarks, Vivian Lee Thoreen, a lawyer for her father James Spears, read a brief statement on behalf of her client: “He is sorry to see his daughter suffering and in so much pain,” she said. “Mr Spears loves his daughter, and he misses her very much.”

After the hearing ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake called for people to stand by her: “We should all be supporting Britney at this time. Regardless of our past, good and bad, and no matter how long ago it was… what’s happening to her is just not right.”

Spears’s current boyfriend, the personal trainer and actor Sam Asghari, posted a picture on Instagram of himself in Free Britney T-Shirt.

Singer Mariah Carey tweeted: “We love you Britney!!! Stay strong.”

Actor Rose McGowan added: “How would you feel if your life was stolen, dissected, mocked? STOP CONTROLLING WOMEN.”

Why are so many calling to #freebritney?

 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

Fans who dote on Britney Spears' social media posts and public statements, trying to decipher her every utterance, dance move or shared meme, have increasingly coalesced into a movement after becoming convinced she was being controlled unfairly. Key were two women who, in 2017, turned their hobby of picking apart Spears' Instagram posts into a podcast, " Britney's `Gram." It would help birth the hashtag #FreeBritney.

Now, even minor hearings can bring dozens of protesters to the courthouse, carrying signs like "CONSERVATORSHIP IS SLAVERY" and "THIS IS TOXIC." Many say they relate to her struggles with mental health and the system. The movement, or at least its sentiments, has attracted her fellow celebrities, including Bette Midler, Miley Cyrus, Paris Hilton and Pitbull.

James Spears has called the group conspiracy theorists, and says those who shout #FreeBritney don't understand the totality of the situation.

Why was it imposed in the first place?

In 2007 and 2008, shortly after she became a mother, she began to have very public mental struggles, with media outlets obsessed over each moment. Hordes of paparazzi aggressively followed her every time she left her house, and she no longer seemed able to handle it.

She attacked one cameraman's car with an umbrella. She shaved her head at a salon. She lost custody of her children. When she refused to turn over her boys after a visit, she was hospitalized and put on a psychiatric hold. The conservatorship was put in place within days.

Why has it gone on so long?

A conservatorship can always be dissolved by the court, though it's rare that a person successfully asks to be released. The burden is on them to prove their competence.

Conservatorships can last decades, because few of the circumstances that lead to them are temporary. The mandatory secrecy of medical records has kept murky the reasons why Britney Spears must remain in hers, but it's clear that it involves psychiatric issues. A recent filing said that she wasn't capable of giving consent for medical treatment.

Even with required secrecy, it's usually no mystery why someone must stay in a conservatorship, says Sarah Wentz, an attorney who specializes in estates. "Courts don't just impose these on people," she says. They're most commonly in situations with something dramatic like a traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer's or dementia."

Spears' father and his attorneys have emphasized that she is especially susceptible to people who seek to take advantage of her money and fame. All sides agree, at least in theory, that she should be able to make her own choices if she becomes able. "The threshold is not, `Do I make dumb decisions?' because we're entitled in our life to make dumb decisions," Wentz says. "Think of how many intelligent women make bad choices. You can fall in love with somebody and give them every penny you have."

Additional reporting AP

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