Is This the Year That Britney Spears Finally Breaks Free?

"Framing Britney Spears" has put the tragedy that's befallen the pop princess into sharp focus. But will all this public scrutiny result in any newfound freedom for her?

By Billy Nilles Feb 17, 2021 10:00 AMTags

In the last 12 years, Britney Spears has released four albums, guest-starred on three major TV shows, served as a mentor during one season of The X Factor, toured the world and popularized the Las Vegas residency with one of the most successful stints the Strip has ever seen.

And as "Framing Britney Spears" brought into stark clarity earlier this month, she did it all while retaining zero personal autonomy in the eyes of the law.

The sobering doc, the latest episode of FX's docu-series The New York Times Presents, laid bare the fact that, in the years since Britney's mental health was in such a state that her parents sought the intervention of the courts, which in turn put a third party in charge of her personal and business affairs, her existence has become something of a contradiction. On the one hand, she's been deemed by the Judicial Branch of California a person who "cannot care" for herself or manage her own finances. And on the other, she's been considered of sound enough mind to work steadily and amass an estate of $60 million.

Conventional wisdom would assume that someone constrained to a conservatorship for 12 years wouldn't have the capacity to function at the level Spears has almost since its start, nor should anyone expect them to. After all, these sorts of arrangements are usually intended to be deployed as a last resort, granted only if there are no alternatives left to exhaust, according to the state of California. And yet, here we are.

In the wake of "Framing Britney Spears," one of the biggest questions being asked by devoted fans and casual observers alike—perhaps second only to "How dare Diane Sawyer?"—is what will it take for Britney Spears to finally be free?

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It's a question that Britney seems to be asking herself. While she's yet to comment publicly on the matter since beginning a legal battle in 2019 to scale back father Jamie Spears' role as her conservator, if not shed the conservatorship altogether, court documents obtained by E! News over the last two years speak volumes.

As fans know well, Britney's father has wielded an immense power over his daughter's life and liberty since being named her conservator in 2008 following her very public meltdown in the face of a misogynistic and uncaring media and culture, culminating in her hospitalization under a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold. Since then, Jamie has retained control over Britney's assets and medical decisions, duties he shared with an attorney named Andrew Wallet until the lawyer's abrupt resignation as co-conservator in early 2019.

Courtesy of FX

With Andrew suddenly out of the picture, Jamie was left as sole conservator of both the person and the estate. Under California law, a conservator of the person "is responsible for making sure that the conservatee has proper food, clothing, shelter, and health care," while a conservator of the estate "handles the conservatee's financial matters—like paying bills and collecting a person's income." The scope of duties for either is immense; for both, borderline excessive. 

After petitioning the court in May of 2019 to have his authority over Britney's life expanded for recognition in Florida, their home state of Louisiana and Hawaii, where Britney frequently vacations, Jamie temporarily stepped down as conservator of Britney's person in September, citing health reasons of his own. Britney's care manager, Jodi Montgomery, was approved to fill in. Jamie remained conservator of the estate.

All of this happened as a court-ordered expert evaluation of Britney's case, spurred by questions over Britney's visit to a wellness center in early 2019 and Jamie's health, was taking shape and public pressure in the form of the #FreeBritney movement began to grow.

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By August 2020, Britney had petitioned the court to make Jodi her permanent sole conservator of person. "Britney is strongly opposed to having James return as conservator of her person. Rather, she strongly prefers to have Ms. Montgomery continue in that role as she has done for nearly a year," read documents obtained by E! News. 

That same month, Britney's court-appointed attorney Samuel D. Ingham III filed new documents requesting Bessemer Trust Co. be appointed as co-conservator of her estate, with mom Lynne Spears filing documents of her own in support of the appointment. 

Through her lawyer, Britney would go on to request greater transparency in the process surrounding her conservatorship. Responding to Jamie's request to have the case sealed, her lawyer filed documents that September that read, "Britney strongly believes it is consistent not only with her personal best interests but also with good public policy generally that the decision to appoint a new conservator of her estate be made in as open and transparent a manner as possible. The sealing motion is supposedly being brought by her father to 'protect' Britney's interests, but she is adamantly opposed to it."

By November, the judge presiding over the case had approved Bessemer as co-conservator, while declining a petition to suspend Jamie's role. During that hearing, Britney's lawyer reportedly told the court, "My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father. She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career." Referring to his client as a "high-functioning conservatee," Britney's attorney argued that Britney deserves notice of the actions her father takes in his role, claiming she and Jamie hadn't spoken in a long time.

The following month, the court extended Britney's conservatorship until September 2021.

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Since then, the court has denied Jamie's petition to remove Bessemer Trust as co-conservator of the estate. With future hearings scheduled in March and April, there's a possibility of change to the current arrangement, but as of now, it remains just that—a possibility.

As for how to end a conservatorship outright, it should be noted that such an arrangement is "usually permanent," per the state of California. However, "in certain cases, a conservatorship may be ended or the conservator may be changed." Outside of the death of either the conservator or the conservatee, this can happen if the conservatee (or someone acting on their behalf) asks the court to end the arrangement, leaving it up to the court to decide if the conservatee's condition has improved to the point that they're now able to handle their own affairs.

Though, as Jamie's attorney Vivien Lee Thoreen noted in "Framing Britney Spears," the number of conservatees she's worked with who've successfully terminated their conservatorship was a whopping zero.

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In 2008, just as her conservatorship was getting underway, Britney spoke about her newly limited freedom in the MTV documentary Britney: For the Record. "If I wasn't under the restraints that I'm under right now, you know, with all the lawyers and doctors and people analyzing me every day and all that kind of stuff, if that wasn't there, I'd feel so liberated and feel like myself. I'm kind of stuck in this place, and it's like, how do you deal? I just cope with it every day," she said "When I tell them the way I feel, it's like they hear me but they're really not listening. They're hearing what they want to hear. They're not listening to what I'm telling them. It's bad...I'm sad."

More recently, Britney's used her social media to communicate with fans, however obliquely. In the aftermath of "Framing Britney Spears," she tweeted that she was "taking the time to learn and be a normal person" who loves "simply enjoying the basics of everyday life." In a separate tweet, she reminded, "Each person has their story and their take on other people's stories !!!! We all have so many different bright beautiful lives. Remember, no matter what we think we know about a person's life it is nothing compared to the actual person living behind the lens."

As public opinion grows in Britney's favor, it's good to remember that we aren't owed every last detail about her life—or anyone else's, for that matter. And so, we'll never have the full picture. All we can do is hope that the right people start listening to the woman who, for far too long, has felt silenced.

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