Miss American Dream, Britney Spears, is in jeopardy. Her vulnerability is not the outcome of being threatened with the traditional dangers of being a celebrity. Instead, it is the four walls of her own estate that are collapsing, suffocating her in the conservatorship that she has been placed in since 2008.
After her divorce from Kevin Federline in 2007, Spears embarked on a downward spiral. The extreme sexualisation of her quintessence by American media, the paparazzi dogging her every move and her troubled relationship with her father, entangled with Spears losing the custody of her two children, pushed her to the brink. Making headlines for shaving her head and attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella, Spears made one fact evident- she was struggling with the amount of undesired attention she was receiving and fans knew she needed help.
In the midst of her several, often public, mental breakdowns, she was placed in psychiatric care after refusing to surrender her sons in a police confrontation. Following this incident, Spears’ career has been entirely controlled by her conservator, James ‘Jamie’ Spears.
It has been twelve years since Spears’ conservatorship began. Her mental health crisis has faded, but her father’s stranglehold on her life continues. Convinced that 39-year-old Spears’ freedom is curbed, The Princess of Pop has amassed support from her loyal fanbase who started the #FreeBritney movement in order to help her regain control over her life.
The extent of Spears’ alleged exploitation by her father was revealed in the New York Times’ documentary ‘Framing Britney Spears’, released on February 5. Containing jarring facts about the conservatorship, the documentary covers the prolonged legal battle between Spears and her father. Anyone who has ever grooved to the tunes of Spears or found empowerment in her new-age woman persona will be moved to tears at the plight of her monitored and caged existence.
But the documentary forces one to ask questions on a bigger sphere- If Spears, with all her legal counsel and support, has not been able to escape her unessential conservatorship, what is the state of those mishandled conservatees who do not have access to the same facilities?
A conservatorship is a legal arrangement in the United States of America where a conservator is appointed to manage the affairs, both financial and personal, of the conservatee. The conservator is a court-appointed individual who is often family to the conservatee. The latter is a citizen who is either elderly or incapacitated to make decisions for their life anymore. Conservatorships are also common in cases of adult children who are incapable of taking control of their life, like individuals who struggle with substance abuse, mental illness or special needs that impact their abilities.
Thus, the conservator acts as a financial overseer, who by the virtue of their role can also dictate the personal liberties the conservatee can exercise. Conservatorships can only be terminated when the conservatee either fully recovers or passes away. The court governs this judgement.
Contrary to the intention of a conservatorship, the reality is not as grounded in righteousness as it seems. “It is surprising how painful it is to disband a conservatorship. To begin with, many unnecessary conservatorships are put in place in multiple states. The reason behind this is that family members who are hiding sinister motives of draining their senile parents’ wealth know exactly how to play their cards.
The most common reasons that are cited for placing someone under conservatorship is that they are likely to get scammed of their finances due to their fading mental capacities and thus they require a conservator. Additionally, it is becoming increasingly difficult for conservatees to prove to courts that they do not require any assistance anymore. Many lack legal counsel and cannot make their case.
This keeps them trapped in a cycle of financial abuse and exploitation at the hands of their conservator,” said attorney Randy Talbert who is based in California and has been involved in over sixty conservatorship litigations.
When asked if Britney Spears’ conservatorship is a sole case of apparent abuse, attorney Talbert explained, “Spears has a movement backing her. She has resources, she has fans at every corner protesting for her freedom every time she has a court hearing. And yet, it seems like she is only nearing her goal by mere inches every single time. Now, imagine what it is like to be an ordinary conservatee.
The power that is endowed upon conservators is enormous. They do not need the court’s authorisation to take any financial decisions or to collect any assets from the conservatee. The need to escape a conservatorship for individuals who are completely in their right mind is thus almost desperate. Conservatorship abuse cases are on the rise but very little is being done to curb them.”
As of September 2020, roughly 1.5 million Americans are under conservatorship. It is evident that a conservator is seeped in power- uncontrolled, unchecked and unpunishable in most cases. Conservators who are not acting in the best interest of their conservatee, like Jamie Spears who has repeatedly admitted a perfectly healthy Britney to mental care facilities to keep her from fighting the conservatorship which helps him cover his finances as well, are not a small group.
Instead, research done by the National Centre for State Courts in 2015 on conservatorship exploitation revealed that twenty-two out of twenty-seven conservatorships are exploitative and abusive. This allows conservators like that of Ms Widener’s from Nebraska, who drained her conservatee’s estate of over $25,000 for her personal expenses, to thrive at the expense of a defrauded individual.
Organizations like RMO lawyers, based in Los Angeles, provide assistance to friends and family of the conservatee who are troubled over the management of the latter by their conservator. These organizations prove to be beneficial for individuals like Erica Loberg, whose mother was the victim of extreme conservator abuse.
As revealed in her piece “When Conservatorship Goes Terribly Wrong”, Loberg’s mother started to falter in her daily household management after the unexpected death of her father. Following a few rounds of legal consultations, a lawyer suggested that her mother be placed under conservatorship. Loberg agreed and this enabled the lawyer to take complete control over her mother and her estate as a conservator.
What was supposed to assist her mother turned into an emotional nightmare for Loberg- she had no contact with her mother who was threatened that she would be sent to a nursing home if she opened the door to her house. Loberg is not alone in experiences with abusive conservators- the potential is ripe for misusing conservatorship laws. Neglecting the needs of a conservatee, mental, physical and verbal abuse towards the conservatee and large purchases of property in the name of the conservator are all extremely existent results of conservatorships.
“The world is rooting for you Britney!” stated one placard at the #FreeBritney rally in February 2021. It is impossible to miss Spears’ fans who have been tirelessly supporting her demand of removing her father as a conservator.
Deemed by many to be a movement that has no basis in a real courtroom, the #FreeBritney supporters proved everyone wrong on February 11 when a judge upheld an earlier ruling which stated that Jamie Spears cannot entirely control Britney’s finances anymore. The judge also ruled that Jamie will only retain 50% of Britney’s conservatorship, citing Britney’s statement that she is “afraid” of her father in a hearing in November 2020. Though the conservatorship has not been entirely disbanded, there is hope for Britney’s freedom in the next hearing that is scheduled for March 11.
Finding a sense of solidarity in the struggle of Britney Spears, the millions of conservatees who are under exploitative conservatorships are yearning for a chance to escape their unlawfully placed bounds.