The case of Britney Spears has turned a harsh spotlight on conservatorship, the legal arrangement under which her father controls her finances and her life.
In a passionate plea Wednesday to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Spears requested an end to the long-running conservatorship, saying she is exploited, can’t sleep, is depressed and cries every day.
“All I want is to own my money and for this to end,” she said.
Spears’ conservatorship dates to 2008, stemming from mental health crises at the time. It was created as a general probate conservatorship in which her father, Jamie Spears, had control over her person and her estate.
This arrangement requires her estimated $60 million fortune to be controlled by her father, who has legal power to negotiate business opportunities and other financial arrangements. Since 2019, Jodi Montgomery, a professional appointed by the court, has acted as temporary conservator over Spears’ personal matters.
To understand more about conservatorships and when they’re used, we spoke with Leslie Salzman, a clinical professor of law at Cardozo School of Law and an expert on elder law, disability law and conservatorships.
What are conservatorships?
A conservatorship, also known as a guardianship, is a legal mechanism set up for people who are unable to manage their affairs.
“They’re suffering harm as a result of that inability, and they’re unable to understand and appreciate the nature and consequences of their inability to manage their affairs,” Salzman tells NPR.
California, where Spears’ case is, defines conservatorship this way: “a court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the “conservator”) to care for another adult (called the “conservatee”) who cannot care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances.”
If a judge grants the conservatorship, the conservator can assume the powers authorized under the order for the duration and scope that is established.
But a conservatee does not lose all their rights.
“When a person becomes a conservatee, he or she does not necessarily lose the right to take part in important decisions affecting his or her property and way of life,” the Judicial Council of California’s Handbook for Conservators says. “All conservatees have the right to be treated with understanding and respect and to have their wishes considered. They have all basic human rights, as well, and the right to be well cared for by you.”.
“Conservatorship means the court is taking away the civil liberties from one person and giving them to someone else,” Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project, said in a blog post last year. “But it is the court weighing into the person’s life and saying you, as a person with a disability, are no longer able to make decisions about yourself and livelihood — such as where you live, and how you support and feed yourself — and we are putting someone else in charge of making those decisions.”