The legal battle over who should control Britney Spears’ finances and personal life is scheduled to return to the courtroom this week amid a renewed discussion of how she was treated during her meteoric rise as a teenage pop star and during her subsequent mental health struggles.
The issue resurfaced in recent days after “Framing Britney Spears,” a documentary by The New York Times, premiered Friday on FX and Hulu. The film centers on the conflict over Spears’ conservatorship, a legal arrangement that has allowed other people — primarily her father — to manage her career, personal life and finances since 2008.
In tracing the origins of the legal battle, the documentary tells a story of a gifted performer who for decades has been surrounded by people seeking to capitalize off her, and who was ultimately driven to desperation by an insidious celebrity culture and paparazzi who would not leave her alone.
The film also explores the #FreeBritney movement, a campaign by fans that seeks to portray the conservatorship as a money-hungry means to exert control over Spears.
Since the new documentary’s debut, these calls have multiplied, with several celebrities joining in and amplifying a movement that was once confined to a niche group of activists and superfans.
In posts on Instagram and Twitter on Tuesday, Spears appeared to comment indirectly on the documentary by sharing a performance of hers from a few years ago and writing, “I’ll always love being on stage …. but I am taking the time to learn and be a normal person ….. I love simply enjoying the basics of every day life!!!!”
“Remember, no matter what we think we know about a person’s life,” she wrote, “it is nothing compared to the actual person living behind the lens.”
With a hearing scheduled Thursday in Los Angeles, here is a breakdown of the conservatorship controversy.
What is a conservatorship?
Sometimes known as a guardianship, a conservatorship is a complex legal arrangement typically reserved for the old, ill or infirm. A representative is designated to manage the person’s affairs and estate if that person is deemed to be unable to take care of themselves or vulnerable to outside influence or manipulation.
Spears has lived under a conservatorship since 2008, after a string of public meltdowns (which, the documentary notes, were aggressively captured by paparazzi who followed Spears nearly everywhere she went). For more than a decade, Spears’ father, James Spears, known as Jamie, has overseen much of his daughter’s financial and personal life as one of the conservators. The appointed conservators have control over everything from Spears’ mental health care to where and when she can travel; the setup means that Spears’ conservators are required to submit detailed accounts of her purchases to the court — even $5 purchases at Sonic Drive-In or Target.
Conservatorships are always portrayed as being for a person’s protection. Representatives for Jamie Spears have said that his stewardship over her career likely saved her from financial ruin. He said in court filings that his “sole motivation has been his unconditional love for his daughter and a fierce desire to protect her from those trying to take advantage of her.”
Jamie Spears stepped back from his role as his daughter’s personal conservator in 2019, citing health problems; a professional conservator took his place temporarily. The current court battle revolves around control over Spears’ estate.
Where does the issue stand in court?
Last summer, the contours of the case changed drastically when Spears’ court-appointed lawyer, Samuel Ingham III, said in a court filing for the first time that his client “strongly opposed” her father as conservator. In requesting that Spears’ temporary personal conservator, Jodi Montgomery, a professional in the field, be made permanent, Ingham left open the possibility that Spears might one day seek to terminate the conservatorship fully.
“Without in any way waiving her right to seek termination of this conservatorship in the future,” Ingham wrote, “Britney would like Ms. Montgomery’s appointment as conservator of her person to be made permanent.”
In November, a judge declined to immediately remove Jamie Spears as head of his daughter’s estate; at the same time, the judge added a corporate fiduciary, Bessemer Trust, as co-conservator, as the singer requested.
In December, the judge extended Montgomery’s temporary role as personal conservator until September of this year.
The hearing in Los Angeles will likely include a discussion of the roles that Jamie Spears and Bessemer Trust will play in managing the estate. A lawyer for Jamie Spears did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
What does Britney Spears want?
What has become clear in recent months through her lawyer, according to court filings, is that Britney Spears no longer wants her father to serve as her conservator.
At a court hearing in November, the singer’s lawyer said that “she is afraid of her father,” whom she has not spoken to in a long time, and that she will not perform again if her father maintains control over her career, The Associated Press reported.
For years, Spears had largely ignored the calls from fans to #FreeBritney, but more recently, she signaled some approval when her lawyer wrote in a court filing that his client “welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans.” (Her father has referred to #FreeBritney activists as “conspiracy theorists.”)
What is less clear is whether Britney Spears intends to try to terminate the conservatorship in the near future. Her initial aversion to the arrangement was clear in 2008, when, in an interview with MTV, Spears compared her circumstances to a jail sentence with no end.
In her social media posts Tuesday, Spears wrote, “Each person has their story and their take on other people’s stories.”
Her current boyfriend, Sam Asghari, came out earlier Tuesday with a blunt criticism of Jamie Spears, writing in an Instagram story that he has “zero respect for someone trying to control our relationship and constantly throwing obstacles in our way.”
Who else has spoken up?
The #FreeBritney movement has gotten attention from celebrities before, such as when Miley Cyrus shouted out the phrase during a concert in 2019. But the film has amplified the support — and sparked a reckoning from journalists and others around how they may have played into the hypercritical Britney obsession of the aughts.
In the days after the documentary dropped, celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Bette Midler and Andy Cohen tweeted out the hashtag. Calling the documentary a “gut punch,” actress Valerie Bertinelli tweeted a list of men who she believed have harmed Spears throughout her career. Singer Hayley Williams wrote that “no artist today” would have to endure what Spears did.
In the days after the documentary’s debut, another message, which was popularized by celebrities including singer Courtney Love, began trending: “We are sorry, Britney.” It was a sorrowful admission that the intrusions into Spears’ private life, the fixation on her sexuality and the relentless focus on her mistakes rested on the shoulders of many.
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