Nearly 14 years after a Los Angeles court deemed the pop sensation Britney Spears unable to care for herself, stripping the singer of control in nearly every aspect of her life, a judge ruled on Friday to end the conservatorship that Ms. 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 half an hour into the brief hearing. “The conservatorship is hereby terminated.”
The judge added that further psychological assessments of Ms. Spears were unnecessary, because the conservatorship was technically voluntary. But Judge Penny said that the current conservator of the singer’s estate would continue working to settle ongoing financial concerns related to the case.
James P. Spears, Ms. Spears’s 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 very 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 Ms. Spears’s father 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 Ms. Spears’s 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.
Ms. Spears, in her first extended public comments on the conservatorship at a court hearing this summer, said its authority went too far, claiming 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 Mr. Spears, 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,” Ms. 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 on Friday. But ahead of 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 Ms. Spears, Mathew S. Rosengart, repeated some of the singer’s recent comments about the conservatorship in court on Friday at her behest, he said.
“I just want my life back,” Mr. Rosengart told the judge, quoting Ms. Spears.
Ms. 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 Ms. Spears was content to be in the conservatorship — her father and his representatives had routinely called it both necessary and voluntary — crumbled on June 23 when she spoke about it extensively in public for the first time.
After requesting to address the judge directly, Ms. Spears made a shocking, emotional call into court, speaking for more than 20 minutes. And while the great majority of the hearings in the case had happened behind closed doors, with Ms. Spears appearing rarely and speaking only in private when she did, the June hearing was streamed live online because of Covid-19 protocols. Ms. Spears insisted that her remarks be heard by all who were tuning in.
Already, Ms. 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, Ms. 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 Mr. Spears’s fitness as conservator, citing his drinking and calling him “obsessed” with controlling her.
But little would change for years.
In 2016, Ms. Spears told a court investigator that the arrangement was oppressive and that she was “sick of being taken advantage of,” according to the investigator’s account of the conversation. Still, the investigator’s report concluded that the conservatorship remained in Ms. Spears’s best interest based on her complex finances, susceptibility to undue influence and “intermittent” drug issues, even as it called for “a pathway to independence” and eventually, termination.
In 2019, Ms. Spears told the court that she had felt forced into a stay at a mental health facility and that she was made to perform while sick, according to a transcript of the closed-door hearing. She said later that she did not feel like she had been heard.
In her comments at the June hearing, Ms. 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. Judge Penny allowed Ms. Spears to select a new lawyer the next month.
Mr. Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor who has worked extensively in Hollywood, took over the case, calling for an extensive re-examination of the entire arrangement and pushing for Mr. Spears’s immediate suspension as estate conservator; that was granted in September. Ms. 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, Mr. Spears moved to end the conservatorship entirely. Mr. Rosengart argued that the turnaround was designed so that Mr. 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.
Mr. Rosengart has sought to investigate Mr. Spears’s 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.
Mr. Spears’s 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 Ms. Spears’s 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.
In addition to Ms. Spears and her father, the singer’s personal conservator, Jodi Montgomery, also consented, according to court filings, and worked with Mr. Rosengart on a “termination care plan” that was filed with the court under seal. (Ms. Montgomery took over those duties from Mr. Spears on an ongoing temporary basis in September 2019, when he resigned citing health issues.)
Still, Mr. Rosengart said in court on Friday that Ms. Spears wanted a financial and personal “safety net” even after the conservatorship was terminated.
John Zabel, the certified public accountant who took over the estate in September, would retain “limited administrative powers,” the lawyer said, including the ability to execute estate planning and transfer outside assets into an existing trust for Ms. Spears. Ms. Montgomery, too, would be there for Ms. Spears if she needed help, her lawyer, Lauriann Wright, said.
The parties, Mr. Rosengart said, had “engaged in an orderly transfer of power.”
Ms. Spears had insisted that the arrangement end without her having to undergo further psychological assessments, which judges typically rely on when considering whether to restore independence to someone under a conservatorship.
“I don’t think I owe anyone to be evaluated,” Ms. Spears told the court in June. Mr. Spears later agreed in his own court filings, and Judge Penny ultimately concurred.
But several experts said they had expected the judge to require a mental health evaluation, and that it was highly unusual for her to end the conservatorship without one.
“Based upon the information on the public record, and the history of alleged mental health issues, I am shocked that the conservatorship was terminated without a current mental health evaluation,” said Victoria J. Haneman, a trusts and estates law professor at Creighton University. “I had no doubt that a clear path to termination would be agreed upon, but I did not think in a million years that it would all end today.”
In this case, the singer’s extensive résumé as a conservatee seemed to be enough.
One of the best-selling artists of all time, Ms. Spears released four of her nine studio albums while under the conservatorship, including, most recently, “Glory” in 2016. She appeared on television, serving as a judge on “The X Factor” in 2012, and even toured internationally, though most of her performances were part of a strictly controlled Las Vegas residency.
Beginning in 2013, “Britney: Piece of Me” ran for four years at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino, grossing a reported $138 million across nearly 250 shows. A follow-up Vegas show, “Britney: Domination,” was canceled in 2019.
The millions Ms. Spears amassed in her career will continue to be pored over in minute detail as the many lawyers and other professionals who have been involved in the conservatorship proceedings seek approval by the court to be paid.
Up to this point, all expenses incurred in the case — including the legal fees of those fighting against Ms. Spears’s wishes — have been billed to the singer’s estate. Mr. Rosengart has made a formal objection to a request for fees by former lawyers for Mr. Spears, calling the totals — some related to “media matters” in defense of the conservatorship — “outrageous and exorbitant.”
Others seeking payment include Mr. Rosengart; Mr. Ingham, Ms. Spears’s former court-appointed lawyer; another firm he brought on board for litigation assistance; Ms. Montgomery and her lawyers; and lawyers for Lynne Spears, the singer’s mother and an “interested party” in the conservatorship since 2019. Additional hearings in the case are scheduled for Dec. 8 and Jan. 19.
Outside the courthouse, amid cheering fans, Mr. Rosengart said that Ms. Spears’s 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 Ms. Spears would ever perform again, the lawyer added that, for the first time in years, “it’s up to her.”
Joe Coscarelli reported from New York, and Julia Jacobs from Los Angeles. Lauren Herstik, Douglas Morino and Graham Bowley contributed reporting.
Source: NY Times