Britney Spears wants freedom: What is conservatorship? Why would someone need a conservator?

After Britney Spears broke her silence in a dramatic court hearing Wednesday, an uproar across the nation is asking more about the terms of conservatorship.

Spears asked the judge to be freed from her conservatorship and shared details as to why. The pop star said she was forced to use an IUD despite wanting more children and her medication was changed to lithium against her will. 

“I’m not here to be anyone’s slave,” Spears said while appearing Wednesday in Los Angeles court remotely via telephone. “I’ve lied and told the whole world I’m OK and I’m happy. It’s a lie.”

For the past 13 years, Spears has been under the management of her father, Jamie Spears. Bessemer Trust Co. manages her estate, and professional conservator Jodi Montgomery manages Spears’ personal affairs.

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The conservatorship led her fans to start the #FreeBritney movement. “Framing Britney Spears,” a New York Times documentary focused on the star’s conservatorship, has also reignited national interest in the case.

“I don’t feel like I can live a full life. … I want this conservatorship to end without having to be evaluated,” Spears said. 

Britney Spears on July 22, 2019, in Hollywood. (Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Why is Britney Spears in a conservatorship? Have other celebrities have had a conservator?

In 2007 and 2008, shortly after she became a mother, Spears began to have very public mental struggles.

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.

Amanda Bynes’ mother was temporarily granted a conservatorship of the actress and her estate in 2013. This was after the actress was placed on a 5150 psychiatric hold in 2013 and setting a fire in a neighbor’s driveway. 

Following a sudden brain aneurysm in 2015, singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell was left unable to speak and remained unresponsive for quite some time.

Her friend Leslie Morris was appointed her conservator to meet with doctors and make decisions about Mitchell’s treatment and her long-term care.

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An attorney appointed to represent Mitchell’s interests at the hearing in 2015 agreed that she should be placed under a temporary conservatorship.

“I believe that it is very necessary,” attorney Rebecca Thyne said.

In December 1991, Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson was put under a conservatorship after Wilson’s family filed a lawsuit against Wilson’s longtime live-in psychologist and, for a time, the musician’s legal guardian, Eugene Landy.

It was alleged that Landy manipulated Wilson, who had suffered from alcohol and drug abuse, obesity and a schizo-affective disorder.

How does Spears’ conservatorship work?

With a fortune of more than $50 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 primary custody. It has the power to take out restraining orders in her name, which has been used more than once to keep away interlopers deemed shady. It has the power to make her medical decisions and her business deals. She said at Wednesday’s hearing that she has been compelled to take drugs against her will, forced to use birth control and required to undertake performances when she didn’t want to.

Legally, Spears can get married, but the conservatorship must approve it as with other major life decisions. Spears said Wednesday that she wants to get married and have another child, but has been denied the chance to do either.

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

After Britney Spears' lengthy statement in which she asked a judge to end her conservatorship, Justin Timberlake and other celebrities voiced support.

USA TODAY

What is conservatorship?

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. 

Specific conservatorship laws and limitations vary per state. 

In California, conservatorship is defined as a court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization to care for an adult who cannot take care of themselves or their finances. 

David English, chair of the National Guardianship Network, said even terminology differs across the country.

“What is a conservatorship in California would be called a guardianship in most other states,” English said. 

New York uses the term guardianship to legally describe someone who needs help caring for themselves and managing their property or affairs. In Texas, there are three types of conservatorships with a child: a joint managing conservator, a sole managing conservator and a possessory conservator.

In Georgia, guardianship is a court appointment of a guardian to make decisions for an incapacitated adult concerning their health and safety. Conservatorship is granted when a person can no longer manage their property. 

Why would someone need a conservator?

In most cases, guardianship or conservatorship is appointed for someone elderly who has dementia, according to English. It can also be granted for someone with very serious developmental disabilities. 

Most states require some kind of evaluation by a physician or psychologist for the petition to be granted by a county court where a judge would hear the case.

“If an adult individual is determined by the court to lack mental capacity, the court may appoint someone else to make decisions for that person,” English said. 

For adults, a petition for conservatorship can be filed with the court at any age over 18 and can last until the conservatee, the person under the conservatorship, dies.

“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” English said. 

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