The New York Times and FX recently released a new documentary on Hulu called Framing Britney Spears, and it has quickly catapulted the pop singer back into the news. The show presents a harrowing tale of the Princess of Pop’s precipitous fall from grace circa 2007-2008 and reexamines the events that led to it. But, following a very public mental breakdown in 2007, Britney’s life began to unravel. Her father, Jamie Spears, obtained full legal control of both her finances and her personal life alongside another attorney. And from that point on, Spears has been heavily guarded and controlled. She lost primary custody of her children. She is reportedly given an allowance every week and required to log all of her expenses. Now, 14 years later and at the age of 39, she is still not allowed to make unilateral decisions about her dating life, her business arrangements, or her property. Essentially, she has been stripped of her freedom and the bulk of her civil liberties. In response, many fans have united in the #FreeBritney movement that seeks to influence her legal battle.
Primarily, the movement seeks to bring awareness to the nature of conservatorships (often referred to as guardianships), which is the legal arrangement Spears has found herself in. While Britney’s case may sound unusual to the general public, conservatorships have been around for some time, though they are typically geared toward the elderly or people with developmental disabilities.
A conservatorship is when a judge appoints a guardian to oversee the financial affairs and/or the daily life of another person due to physical or mental limitations. That person is then referred to as the conservatee or as a ward—a legal status similar to that of a child in relation to his or her parents.
Essentially, conservatorships are intended for those whose cognitive functions make them vulnerable to being taken advantage of. They can help families ensure their loved ones are not scammed out of money, that they receive the healthcare they may need, and that they are not duped into other situations, like marriage, by people who seek to take advantage of them.
There is a place for this measure in a free society. When children are growing up we expect their parents to meet their needs, guard them from malicious people, and protect their well-being. But once a person turns eighteen in this country, families are stripped of this ability regardless of their loved one’s mental state or capacities. So it’s easy to imagine why conservatorships could be a needed legal intervention for an adult who has dementia, psychosis, or a traumatic brain injury.
But, as the documentary shows, these cases are not always so cut and dry.
As a new generation is confronted with the information in the film, people are grappling with Spears’ plight under a new light—one that is informed by our modern day understanding of mental health issues, female autonomy, and the mistreatment by the media of many young celebrities.
In light of these circumstances, supporters of the #FreeBritney movement believe Britney has been wrongfully placed in her conservatorship. Many argue that such drastic, long-term measures were excessive and suspect Spears was simply suffering from postpartum depression at the time of her breakdown, resulting from back-to-back pregnancies, the break-up of her marriage, and her treatment by the media and society at large.
Others question whether her medical condition warrants the permanent removal of her rights, pointing to the fact that the singer continues to work at a very profitable and prolific level. Indeed, her estate is currently valued at $59 million, largely as a result of multiple new albums, tours, TV appearances, and even a smash Las Vegas concert residency over the past twelve years.
Ultimately, the general public does not know the details of Spears’ mental state, since the records in her case have been sealed at her father’s request. What we do know is this.
In 2020, Britney petitioned the court to remove Jamie Spears as her conservator and requested a financial institution at the helm instead. She has refused to perform until such a change occurs. And through her attorneys, Britney has indicated that she does not want the secrecy surrounding her circumstances. Spears’ conservatorship may or may not be warranted—that remains to be seen. But her case has shined a spotlight on a system that is ripe for abuse, and Spears would certainly not be the first victim of a conservatorship.
In 2016, a special committee on aging for the US Senate found nearly thirty cases of conservatorship abuse covered by the media in the past year alone. Most of the victims were women, and half of them lived in care facilities. According to a 2013 AARP report, 1.5 million Americans are under conservatorships at a given time, and many of those people end up being victimized. A 2010 Government Accountability Office guardianship review found that $5.4 million in assets was stolen from 158 victims after its review of only 20 cases (court appointed guardians often oversee multiple wards).
In Ohio, Paul Kormanik served as a professional conservator for over 400 individuals. He embezzled $40,000 from four of them. One of the victim’s children claimed he never even met their mother, and another of his wards was denied medical care because Kormanik failed to complete the needed Medicaid forms. In California, Thelma Gums was placed under a conservatorship overseen by her daughter, who then signed her property over to herself in an attempt to cut her siblings out of their inheritance. And these are just a few of the stories.
A conservatorship is an almost complete negation of the natural right to self-ownership—which many philosophers hold to be the most fundamental of our rights. In his seminal work, Two Treatises on Government, John Locke discussed this bedrock principle and argued that every individual has a right to decide what would become of themselves, what they would do, and the right to reap the benefits of those choices. Locke’s ideas deeply influenced the American tradition of freedom and rights, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution and legal system.. You have a right to craft your own destiny. Is there any concept more dear to our values than that?
Guardianships and Conservatorships may be necessary and on going, but this process can be abused. These positions need to be closely observed. It may be that one is no longer needed as that person has been able to control what ails them, or it is necessary and then that individual is unable to care for themselves. If you or a loved one needs or has a guardianship/conservatorship, please reach out to us if you should need assistance.