Judge ends conservatorship overseeing Britney Spears’ life and finances
By Joe Coscarelli and Julia Jacobs
Nearly 14 years after a Los Angeles court deemed pop sensation Britney Spears unable to care for herself, stripping the singer of control in nearly every aspect of her life, a judge ruled Friday to end the conservatorship that Spears said had long traumatized and exploited her.
“The conservatorship of the person and estate of Britney Jean Spears is no longer required,” Judge Brenda Penny said, making her ruling less than a half-hour into the brief hearing. “The conservatorship is hereby terminated.”
The judge added that further psychological assessments of Spears were unnecessary because the conservatorship was technically voluntary. But Penny said that the current conservator of the singer’s estate would continue working to settle ongoing financial concerns related to the case.
James Spears, Spears’ father, who is known as Jamie, first petitioned the court for authority over his adult daughter’s life and finances in early 2008, citing her public mental health struggles and possible substance abuse amid a child custody battle. What began as a temporary conservatorship was made permanent by the end of the year.
Since then, the conservatorship has governed both the big business of Britney Spears and the day-to-day reality of the woman at its center, covering her medical care and personal life while putting her back to work as a lucrative performer in Las Vegas and beyond.
Once called a “hybrid business model” by the former estate conservator who worked alongside Jamie Spears for years, the setup entered into professional contracts on behalf of the pop star; vetted her friends, visitors and boyfriends; dictated her travel; and logged her every purchase, down to a drink from Starbucks.
It also drew questions from Britney Spears’ increasingly invested fans and outside observers, who asked why an active global celebrity and working musician was in an arrangement typically reserved for people who cannot feed, clothe or shelter themselves.
Spears, in her first extended public comments on the conservatorship at a court hearing this summer, argued that its authority went too far, saying that those in charge forced her to take medication, work against her will and use a birth control device. She called for them to be investigated and jailed, pointing to her father, 69, as “the one who approved all of it.”
“I shouldn’t be in a conservatorship if I can work. The laws need to change,” Spears, 39, said at the time, explaining that her previous silence had been the result of embarrassment and fear. “I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive. I don’t feel like I can live a full life.”
The singer was not present in court Friday. But before the hearing, she was seen in a video posted to Instagram by her fiancé, Sam Asghari, wearing a T-shirt that read #FREEBRITNEY above the phrase “It’s a human rights movement,” while her song “Work Bitch” played in the background.
A lawyer for Spears, Mathew S. Rosengart, repeated some of the singer’s recent comments about the conservatorship in court Friday at her behest, he said.
“I just want my life back,” Rosengart told the judge, quoting Spears.
Spears responded to the ruling on social media Friday evening. “Good God I love my fans so much it’s crazy,” she wrote, adding some emojis. “I think I’m gonna cry the rest of the day !!!! Best day ever … praise the Lord … can I get an Amen.”
Any notion that Spears was content to be in the conservatorship — her father and his representatives had routinely called it both necessary and voluntary — crumbled June 23 when she spoke about it extensively in public for the first time.
After requesting to address the judge directly, Spears made a shocking, emotional call into court, speaking for more than 20 minutes. And while the majority of the hearings in the case had happened behind closed doors, with Spears appearing rarely and speaking only in private when she did, the June hearing was streamed live online because of COVID-19 protocols. Spears insisted that her remarks be heard by all who were tuning in.
Already, Spears had begun seeking substantial changes to the conservatorship, starting in 2019, when she also announced “an indefinite work hiatus.” But the singer was at first required to use the same court-appointed lawyer she had since 2008, when she was found at the outset of the case to be mentally incapable of hiring her own counsel.
Behind the scenes, Spears had routinely bristled at the strictures of the arrangement, according to reporting and confidential documents obtained by The New York Times. Having objected to her father’s role from the start because of his turbulent and intermittent presence in her life since childhood, she continued to question his fitness as conservator, citing his drinking and calling him “obsessed” with controlling her.
But little would change for years.
In her comments at the June hearing, Spears said she did not know that she could file to end the arrangement altogether. Her lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, soon resigned, as did a wealth management firm that was set to take over as the co-conservator of the estate. Outside the conservatorship, the singer’s longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, also stepped down. Penny allowed Spears to select a new lawyer the next month.
Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor who has worked extensively in Hollywood, took over the case, calling for an extensive reexamination of the entire arrangement and pushing for Jamie Spears’ immediate suspension as estate conservator; that was granted in September. Britney Spears had said previously that she was afraid of her estranged father, even as he remained the steward of her nearly $60 million fortune, and would not return to performing with him in charge.
In an abrupt about-face in September, ahead of his own suspension, Jamie Spears moved to end the conservatorship entirely. Rosengart argued that the turnaround was designed so that Jamie Spears, who earned a salary as conservator and commissions from his daughter’s career, could avoid legal discovery and being deposed under oath about his earnings and financial management of her estate.
Rosengart has sought to investigate Jamie Spears’ dealings with the estate’s former business manager, Tri Star Sports & Entertainment Group, along with a security firm that monitored the singer, including secretly capturing audio recordings from her bedroom and accessing material from her phone, according to a documentary on the subject by the Times.
Jamie Spears’ new legal team, hired after his removal, has said he stands by his record as conservator and “supports, indeed encourages, a full and transparent examination.”
Lawyers for Tri Star denied in court filings that the company’s employees had any control over Britney Spears’ security protocols, including hidden electronic surveillance, and said that its financial dealings with the estate were approved by the court before the firm’s resignation from the conservatorship last year.
But even as the battle continues in court — with subsequent hearings scheduled to address the outstanding financial issues and investigations tied to the conservatorship — both sides came to agree that the arrangement should end.
Outside the courthouse, amid cheering fans, Rosengart said that Spears’ conservatorship had shined a light on potential abuses in the wider system. “If this happened to Britney, it can happen to anybody,” he said.
When asked whether Spears would ever perform again, the lawyer added that, for the first time in years, “it’s up to her.”