In the past few months or so, Britney Spears’ Instagram has piqued the interest of armchair psychologists, Britney stans, and the pop culture curious alike. Her 25 million followers are obsessed with potential coded messages communicated through colors and flowers, the bizarre story of how she burned down her gym with workout candles, and the videos with shoutouts “at the LGBTQ community.” It’s as bizarre as it is worrisome. Buried within the comments of Spears’ posts are pleas to help Britney Spears escape her own life—a reference to the private, yet highly reported on conservatorship her father has held over her finances and well-being since 2008.
Conservatorships, alleged mental illness, and personal autonomy are complex issues to unpack, so we dove in, consulted California law, and broke down the next steps of what Spears’ journey looks like. The below is an explanation of conservatorships, the facts around Britney’s case, and the conspiracy theories that a small but dedicated group of Britney stans have been pushing for years.
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What is a Conservatorship?
A conservatorship is the term for an arrangement where a guardian makes the decisions regarding another person’s financial situation and some aspects of their daily life. The reason for a conservatorship varies—sometimes, the arrangement is set up for a person experiencing dementia or other debilitating mental illness. There are also cases where someone is so physically disabled that a limited conservatorship is set up to assist the person.
The guardian is appointed by a judge and remains in place, typically, for a year. In most cases, conservatorships are able to be renewed annually, or dissolved if they are deemed no longer necessary. In Spears’ case, the conservatorship has been in place for over a decade, and requires “her father to sign off on every major decision she makes, from business, to health, to voting and marriage,” per Newsweek. While that seems aggressive, it’s common in a limited or probate conservatorship for a conservator to have say in the social, romantic, and financial affairs of the conservatee. Mind you, between the two most common conservatorships—limited and LPS—limited/probate are the more lenient ones, in regard to the conservatee. Spears is currently in what is considered a probate conservatorship.
How Did Britney Spears End Up in One?
In 2007, Britney Spears had a particularly public-facing year due to an increasingly busy schedule, paparazzi, and a very public divorce from then-husband Kevin Federline. In a 2017 interview with Yediot Ahronot, Spears said, “My life was controlled by too many people and that doesn’t really let you be yourself. In that situation, when you’re not in control, you become less excited, and there’s less passion when it comes to music.”
In early 2008, Spears reportedly locked herself in a room with her son, resulting in her being placed in a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Specifically in the state of California, a 5150 hold make be invoked when:
A person, as a result of a mental health disorder, is a danger to others, or to himself or herself, or gravely disabled, a peace officer [or] professional person in charge… may, upon probable cause, take, or cause to be taken, the person into custody for a period of up to 72 hours for assessment, evaluation, and crisis intervention.
Following her first hold, she entered into another psychiatric facility later in the same month at UCLA. During this period, Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, was granted an emergency temporary conservatorship, where he was signed to the agreement along with attorney Andrew Wallet. The two remained in control of Spears’ conservatorship, which evolved into a standard conservatorship that has been renewed for over a decade. The long-term nature of Spears’ conservatorship is uncommon, at least in regard to arrangements we’ve heard about involving high-profile celebrities. Conservatorships can last as long as the court holds it up as necessary. Some are renewed all the way through the conservatee’s death.
What Has Happened Since?
Spears never really took any time away from the spotlight. Even in the midst of her most vulnerable period in 2008, Spears guest starred on How I Met Your Mother. By the end of the year, she had released her sixth studio album, Circus. In the decade since, she has released three more albums, completed a Vegas residency, embarked on four tours, and sat as a judge on X Factor.
As for legal matters, the the state of the Spears camp has been complex. In 2009, Spears and her father obtained a restraining order against former manager Sam Lutfi and others, alleging that all parties were attempting to gain control of Spears’ estate, which remained in the control of Spears’ father and Wallet. That relationship has continued to be strained—in 2019, Spears was granted a five-year restraining order that continues to limit the interaction that Lufti can have with her.
As for the conservatorship, the controlling parties have changed over the years. In 2012, Spears’ long-term boyfriend Jason Trawick proposed to her. He was added as a co-conservator until 2013, when the couple dissolved their engagement. Wallet and Jamie Spears remained the sole conservators until 2019, when Wallet resigned as Spears’ attorney, removing himself from the conservatorship, adding in court, “Substantial detriment, irreparable harm and immediate danger will result to the conservatee and her estate if the relief requested herein is not granted on an ex parte basis.” The cryptic explanation alluding to potential harm and danger, paired with Wallet’s abrupt removal from the conservatorship made the ongoing arrangement more complex. Soon after, Spears’ father also stepped down from conservatorship after a personal health emergency. He, temporarily, has named a third party, Jodi Montgomery, as Spears’ day-to-day conservator.
In the midst of this, Spears checked into a mental rehabilitation facility at the beginning of April 2019. This followed health issues with her father, as well as the cancelation of her second Vegas residency, earlier in January. A popular fan podcast, Britney’s Gram, released a special “emergency episode”, airing claims that Spears was being held against her will. In late April 2019, Spears went on her Instagram to dispel rumors, noting that death threats had been made against her family after the alleged forced-facility visit. She added that “all is well.”
Montgomery will remain in the position of sole conservator until August 22, when the conservatorship is able to be renewed for another year.
What is the #FreeBritney Campaign?
The phrase “Free Britney” first appears to have originated on the fan site BreatheHeavy.com in 2009, when fans began to speculate about Spears’ arrangement and whether or not a conservatorship was necessary.
The online campaign has mostly consisted of fans arguing that Spears is not only capable of making decisions but also legally locked out of the ability to do so. The campaign has even resulted in multiple protests in West Hollywood, with supporters demanding Spears be released from the conservatorship. Oftentimes, physical protests are planned for hearing dates. Spears made it clear in legal documents that her issue with the conservatorship has more to do with the conservator and less the arrangement, itself. Spears is now petitioning that her father does not return to the role of conservator, instead allowing Montgomery remain in that position, controlling her affairs and finances.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday, August 18, that Spears’ attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, wrote in court documents, “We are now at a point where the conservatorship must be changed substantially in order to reflect the major changes in her current lifestyle and her stated wishes.” The paper added, “The 38-year-old entertainer is ‘strongly opposed’ to having her father return as what the court calls a ‘conservator of her person’ and ‘strongly prefers’ that Montgomery continue in that role before her appointment expires on Aug. 22.”
In new reporting from People, court documents state that part of Spears’ request comes from not wanting to perform anymore—she specifically doesn’t want to continue with her Vegas residency. Spears’ request was about concerns over the conservator, not the conservatorship itself. In the documents, Spears says the conservatorship “rescued her from a collapse, exploitation by predatory individuals and financial ruin.”
According to a report by TMZ, Spears spoke out against her father in May 2019, during a court hearing. Speaking to USA Today, a legal expert noted that if Spears wanted to reverse the conservatorship, she could request to do so and a medical professional would assess whether or not she is capable of making decisions.
In 2020, Spears’ Instagram has been the flashpoint for the #FreeBritney campaign. Buried in the comments, fans request that if she “needs help,” she should do specifics things like post a dove or wear a yellow shirt. Soon after, Spears seemingly fulfilled the requests in oddly specific ways, fueling speculation from close followers of her Instagram. In select instances, those requests have been met in oddly specific ways, suggesting to fans that she might be reading comments and responding in coded ways through her popular Instagram videos.
What Has Her Family Done and Said About the Situation?
Outside of Jamie’s extensive involvement in the conservatorship, the family has spoken out multiple times over the years in regard to the arrangement. Most recently, Spears’ mother, Lynn, has requested to be included more closely in the conservatorship. Sister Jamie Lynn has spoken out in support for Britney’s well-being multiple times throughout the years. Last year, she posted on social media in defense of the measures the family has taken, lashing out against fans who questioned Spears’ safety.
The day before a July 22 hearing, Jamie Lynn posted to Instagram speaking out about the difficulty of managing loved ones with mental illness after Kanye West exhibited erratic behavior on Twitter earlier in the week. When a commenter chimed in to comment on Spears’ “obvious” mental illness, Jamie Lynn responded, saying, “You have no right to assume anything about my sister. And I have no right to speak about HER health and personal matters. She is a strong, badass, unstoppable woman, and that’s the only thing that is OBVIOUS.”
The next phase in Spears’ conservatorship comes on August 19, when a status hearing may change some of the particulars of the conservatorship as it currently stands. The August hearing determined that Spears’ arrangement has been extended through February 2021, with her father reassuming the role of sole conservator.
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