One of the first things you probably think of when you hear the name Britney Spears is the infamous image of her with a shaved head, wielding an umbrella, and about to smash a car window. Shortly after Spears’ 2007 meltdown, she was involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric facility with her father becoming her official conservator. This is an agreement which has allowed him to control every facet of her life ever since.
The American conservatorship system has been described by critics as “an open invitation to potential abuse” of the elderly and mentally ill, a view which has been popularised by the recent #FreeBritney movement which questions the need for Spears’ conservatorship and advocates for the return of her individual rights. A conservatorship grants one adult, the conservator, the legal power over another adult, the conservatee, on the basis that the conservatee is no longer trusted to make decisions on their own because they are mentally incapacitated. In order to be granted a conservatorship, the individual in question must demonstrate mental incapacitation which needs extensive medical support over time.
Conservatorships vary in duration and type depending on the specific need of the conservatee. They exist in short, temporary, or permanent lengths:
a short term conservatorship which lasts 90 days or less
a temporary conservatorship which is needed when the duration needed is unknown
a permanent conservatorship which lasts for the duration of the conservatee’s life
There are also different types that grant control over only financial or physical actions or can give full or limited control over a conservatee’s estate.
Conservatorships can help those suffering from mental illness but they make conservatees susceptible to abuse and manipulation. Because the conservatee cannot control their finances in certain conservatorships, the conservator is free to spend the conservatee’s money however they want without the awareness of the conservatee. A review by the Government Accountability Office found that in 20 cases regarding 158 conservatorships across 45 American states between 1990 and 2010, nearly US$ 5.4 million (€4,446,387.00) in assets was stolen or incorrectly used by conservators, in addition to physical abuse and neglect in some cases.
Britney Spears, who has been under a temporary conservatorship since 2007, wants to control her own life for the first time in 12 years. The conservatorship was put in place in 2008 after her mental breakdown led to her admission to a psychiatric hospital for a 5150 hold - a 72-hour forcible detention for those appearing to be mentally incapacitated. Her father, Jamie Spears, was named her conservator for temporary, full conservatorship, which gave him the legal right to control Spears’ finances, healthcare, career, and personal life for an unspecified amount of time. In addition to this, he was given the ability to involuntarily admit her to a psychiatric facility. This means that at 38 years old, Spears’ cannot go grocery shopping or take her children to the hospital without her father’s awareness or consent. While Spears has been open about her mental health struggles and voluntary commitment to psychiatric facilities, she has not suffered a severe episode since 2007.
On 15 December 2020, Spears filed to permanently remove her father as the sole conservator of her estate. The pair are no longer on speaking terms and have not communicated since August, demonstrating the neglect which so many others in conservatorships endure. It is questionable why someone who does not communicate with Spears is controlling every aspect of her life.
This, unfortunately, replicates the same battle others face in their conservatorships. Spears has declared through court documents that she supports a conservatorship to manage her estate, however, she wants more control over her life and prefers Jodi Montgomery to be permanently named her conservator. Montgomery has been Spears’ temporary conservator since June 2019 due to her father’s health issues. Although she supports a conservatorship, Britney has repeatedly attempted to remove her father as her conservator because she believes he abuses his power and does not act in her best interest.
Conservatorships and guardianships can be beneficial in severe cases of mental incapacity, but Spears’ case highlights the abuse, neglect, and manipulation which can arise from these arrangements. She, like so many elderly individuals and those who struggle with their mental health, has been repeatedly denied any control over her life. When a conservatee like Spears seeks to change their conservatorship, their attempts are delegitimised because they lack individual rights and are unable to go to court. Rather than take advantage of the mentally ill and elderly, legal systems should account for individual preferences when the conservator possesses unfettered power.
Britney Spears’ conservatorship is still under review. If you would like to support Spears, please consider signing the #FreeBritney petition.