The Importance of Incapacity Planning Is Highlighted in Britney Spears’ Conservatorship—Part 1

October 6, 2021

Britney Spears has been one of the world’s most renowned and popular pop stars since the age of 16. Despite her massive fame and fortune, Britney, now 39, has never truly had full control over her own life.

Britney has been living under a conservatorship for the past 13 years. A conservatorship, often known as “adult guardianship,” is a legal structure which the court granted Britney’s father, Jaime Spears, and other individuals nearly complete control over her legal, financial, and personal decisions. The conservatorship was first created in February 2008, following Britney’s mental breakdown, which led to her being hospitalized for a short period of time.

Complete Loss of Control

Britney’s father and attorney Andrew Wallet were named co-conservators in 2008, after Britney was declared mentally incompetent to care for herself. The arrangement was initially intended to be temporary, but in October of that year, the conservatorship was extended, and Britney’s father has remained in nearly complete control of Britney’s life ever since. Britney’s father has the authority to restrict her visitors; he is responsible for 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 dealings, including when she works, and complete control over all of her financial matters.

Britney’s current mental health status is unknown, and we’re unsure whether she still requires assistance managing her financial and commercial activities. However, it is quite evident that, given the opportunity, Britney would have wanted to have some say over not only who should make decisions on her behalf during her incapacity, but also how those decisions should be made. However, because Britney did not create legal documents indicating who should make decisions for her if she became unable to make them for herself, a judge made those decisions for her—which, as you will read below, resulted in immense trauma for Britney and destroyed her relationship with her father.

With this in mind, we will begin this series of articles by discussing the latest developments regarding Britney’s conservatorship and the influence it has had on the pop star’s life and career. Following that, we’ll cover how proactive estate planning and our Family Wealth Planning process can help you and your loved ones avoid a similar occurrence.

Endured Years Of Abuse And Exploitation

Despite widespread assumptions that Britney’s conservatorship was abusive, the details of her conservatorship have remained confidential. Furthermore, Britney has never spoken publicly about her life under the arrangement until quite recently. Britney’s father and others involved in the conservatorship have stated that the arrangement saved her from herself and others attempting to exploit her at her lowest point. They revealed how the conservatorship assisted Britney in getting out of debt and earning a fortune believed to be worth about $60 million. Furthermore, conservatorship representatives have stated that Britney could request that the conservatorship be terminated at any time.

However, two shocking developments in recent weeks have finally shown how much Britney has suffered under the conservatorship and how she has struggled in vain for years to reclaim control of her life from her father. The first was a report published on June 22 by the New York Times. According to confidential court records obtained by the newspaper, Britney had shown severe resistance to her conservatorship as early as 2014, and the pop icon had fought for her father’s removal from his position on many occasions. Britney eventually broke her silence the next day, in a public court hearing on June 23, and what she described was stunning.

Britney pleaded with Judge Brenda Penny to end the conservatorship, claiming she has been subjected to years of abuse and exploitation, including being forced to take a powerful mood stabilizer that makes her feel drunk, being forced to work while seriously ill, and being forced to remain on birth control, preventing her from having more children. (Read the complete transcript of Britney’s testimony.) Britney’s father, in response, vehemently denies any wrongdoing and insists he is working in his daughter’s best interests. In fact, his lawyers filed a petition demanding that the court investigate Britney’s allegations of abuse a few days later. If Britney’s claims are shown to be genuine, “corrective action must be taken,” and if not, the conservatorship “may continue its course,” according to the petition.

Judge Penny refused Britney’s plea to remove her father as conservator a week later. However, the judge’s decision was based only on a filing by Britney’s lawyer 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, has yet to file a formal petition to terminate the conservatorship, but the judge has stated that such a filing is possible.

According to CNN, Britney has since instructed Ingraham to file the required paperwork as soon as possible in order to properly terminate the conservatorship once and for all. If filed, the judge might rule on Britney’s petition as well as her father’s request for an investigation during the next conservatorship hearing.

The Guardianship System Is Broken

As Britney’s story highlights, the guardianship, and conservatorship system can present significant potential for abuse. It is in fact true that, as we’ve previously discussed, there have been dozens of highly publicized reports in recent years involving corrupt professional guardians who exploit their wards financially. Such crimes do, however, almost always involve elderly victims, and perpetrators who are strangers. As Britney’s case shows, this is something that can happen to anyone of any age, and abusers can even be relatives.

Perhaps the most baffling part of the whole situation is why Britney is still living under a conservatorship when she is as young and healthy as she is. 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. Despite the fact that Britney needed conservatorship to help protect her from bad judgments and exploitation, since then, the Grammy winner has been extremely hardworking and now earns millions of dollars. Despite the fact that she was thought to be incapable of making her own judgments throughout the last decade, Britney published four albums, headlined multiple world tours, and appeared in a Las Vegas residency.

It should be noted, however, that as a result of her conservatorship, which is secret, and the fact that Britney has never shared all the details of her mental health, we do not know the full extent of her illness. It has been widely reported and believed that Britney is suffering from bipolar disorder. However, her medical records are sealed and there is no evidence to support that. Additionally, although the story was reported in 2019 that Britney checked herself into a mental health facility and was prescribed lithium, a medication used to treat bipolar disorder, this was not entirely true, according to court records obtained by the New York Times. 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.

Britney will have to show that she is capable of handling her own life, health, and financial choices in order to terminate her conservatorship. It will be necessary for Britney to have another mental health evaluation in order to achieve this, which would likely involve a court hearing and testimony from mental health professionals.

Concerning a separate conservatorship that involved 27-year-old actress Amanda Bynes, a conservatorship attorney named Tamar Arminak told the culture and music website Vulture in an interview that the conservatorship proceedings likely involve a “mini-trial” to determine whether the conservatorship is still in the best interests of Britney Spears. Arminak explained, “You have to present evidence and show a changed circumstance.” “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.” Britney is reluctant to go through another mental health evaluation. As she made apparent in her recent testimony, this is absolutely correct. “I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive… “I want to end the conservatorship without being evaluated,” Britney told the judge.

According to Vanity Fair, a source close to Britney claims that the reason she has been reluctant to undergo another mental health evaluation is because 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.” Another of the reasons why Britney’s lawyer has not yet formally filed a petition to end the conservatorship is because she does not want to be evaluated. It’s reasonable that Britney would be apprehensive to trust yet another doctor hired by her father or authorized by the court due to her prior experiences with mental health professionals.

However, if Britney wants to finally be free and have full control over her life, that might be the only choice she has.

With Incapacity Planning, You Can Avoid Britney’s Fate

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 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. In part two, we’ll outline those options in more detail, but to learn more, contact us today.

We’ll continue with part two in this series on Britney Spears’ conservatorship and how you can avoid the potential for abuse, conflict, and expense of court-ordered conservatorship using estate planning.

This article is a service of Greg Gordillo, Family Business Lawyer™. We don’t 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 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 scheduling a Family Wealth Planning Session via our online scheduler and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Small Business Law Blog