Britney Spears' conservatorship ends. What's next for this tool?
California Judge Brenda Penny terminated the conservatorship that controlled pop singer Britney Spears' life choices and money for nearly 14 years.
| Los Angeles
There were no more of the heated arguments or dueling court filings of the past few months, no more tearful testimony or angry accusations.
For one day at least, everyone surrounding Britney Spears agreed. She needed to be freed.
Most important among them was Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny, who at a hearing Friday terminated the conservatorship that controlled the pop singer's life and money for nearly 14 years.
The Britney Spears case, as The Christian Science Monitor reported, raised the profile of this legal approach and breathed life into reform efforts.
Several prominent figures, including federal politicians and other celebrities, have voiced support for Ms. Spears and pushed for more significant changes after her testimonies. A new bipartisan bill that would give conservatees more control is now advancing through Congress.
“The publicity that Britney’s case has gotten has made a lot of people go, ‘Oh, I didn’t understand about conservatorships and guardianships; I had no idea that it was that extreme or could be that extreme,’” says Jan Costello, a professor at Loyola Marymount University who specializes in mental health law.
Spears did not attend the 30-minute hearing Friday that was almost anti-climactic after the courtroom drama of recent proceedings, in which Spears demanded first the ouster of her father from power over her, then the removal of the legal shackles on her life.
It felt almost like a formality. The celebration that followed was plenty dramatic, though.
“Best day ever … praise the Lord … can I get an Amen???” Spears said on Twitter and Instagram minutes after the ruling.
Jubilation erupted outside the courthouse, with fans cheering and shouting after the decision was announced. The crowd chanted “Britney! Britney! Britney!” and fans sang and danced to Spears’ song “Stronger.”
“Good God I love my fans so much it’s crazy!!!” Spears said in her posts. “I think I’m gonna cry the rest of the day!!!!”
The decision capped a stunning odyssey that saw Spears publicly demand the end of the conservatorship, hire her own attorney, have her father removed from power and finally win the freedom to make her own medical, financial and personal decisions for the first time since 2008.
Those surrounding Spears said she is equipped to make those decisions.
“We have a safety net in place for Britney both on the personal side and on the financial side,” her attorney Mathew Rosengart said outside the courthouse. “But Britney, as of today, is a free woman and she’s an independent woman. And the rest, with her support system, will be up to Britney.”
Jodi Montgomery, the court-appointed conservator who oversaw the singer’s life and medical decisions starting in 2019, developed a care plan with her therapists and doctors to guide Spears into the aftermath.
“There is no reason Ms. Spears can’t lead a safe, happy, fulfilling life after this conservatorship,” Montgomery’s attorney, Lauriann Wright, said at the hearing.
Penny's decision came with remarkably few caveats.
She gave no orders that Spears should undergo mental evaluations first, something legal experts had assumed would be part of the conservatorship's endgame. The judge said California law did not require her to order further evaluation of Spears if no one requested it.
The judge kept a small part of the conservatorship temporarily in place so that the singer’s money can be moved around in the coming months as financial power is transferred back to her.
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.
As recently as last spring, it appeared that Spears' conservatorship could continue for years. Then it unraveled with surprising speed.
Key to the unraveling was a speech Spears made at a hearing in June when she passionately described the restrictions and scrutiny as “abusive” and said “I just want my life back,” a line her lawyer repeated in court Friday.
The consensus on display Friday is unlikely to last.
Rosengart has further vowed to pursue an investigation of James Spears’ role in the 13 years he oversaw the conservatorship. He said he and his team have found mismanagement of Britney Spears’ finances, suggesting she could pursue further legal action. Court records put her net worth at about $60 million.
He also said law enforcement should investigate revelations in a New York Times documentary about a listening device placed in her bedroom.
James Spears’ attorneys said Rosengart’s allegations ranged from unsubstantiated to impossible, and that he only ever acted in his daughter’s best interest.
The post-conservatorship fight has in some ways already begun. James Spears has parted ways with the attorneys who helped him operate it, and he has hired Alex Weingarten, a lawyer specializing in the kind of litigation that may be coming.
In court filings last week, Britney Spears’ former business managers, Tri Star Sports and Entertainment Group, pushed back against Rosengart’s demands for documents about the firm’s involvement in the conservatorship from 2008 to 2018. The group also denied any role in or knowledge of any surveillance of the superstar.
Britney Spears was a 26-year-old new mother at the height of her career when her father established the conservatorship, at first on a temporary basis, in February 2008 after a series of public mental health struggles.
It ends a few weeks before her 40th birthday, with her sons in their mid-teens and her career on indefinite hold, as she is engaged to be married a second time.
A turning point came early in 2019, when she canceled a planned concert residency in Las Vegas. Her career has been on hold ever since.
Convinced she was put in a mental hospital against her will, fans began coalescing and demanding that the court #FreeBritney. At first, they were dismissed as conspiracy theorists, but the singer herself gave them validation in 2020 in a series of court filings that said they were correct to demand greater transparency and scrutiny of her legal situation.
Those filings proved to be the first indication from Spears, who had remained silent on the conservatorship for years, that she would seek major changes.
Britney Spears has indicated that she'll focus on family and her newfound freedom for now. She may or may not resume making music.
“Whether Britney performs again will be up to Britney, at the right time,” Rosengart said.