In an unprecedented turn of events, Britney Spears took the stand yesterday in LA Probate Court to tell the Judge exactly how she felt about being conserved. Thirteen years into her Conservatorship, Britney elaborated on what she believes has been an “abusive” situation that has “traumatized” her. Prior to yesterday, Britney had been almost silent on her Conservatorship, reportedly because she believed the Court did not listen to her and that she was in “denial.” Whether she was prompted by the #freebritney movement, her longtime boyfriend Sam Asghari or she’d just simply had enough, Britney was very clear that she wanted her Conservatorship to end – for good.
In the last year or so, there has been significant media focus on the Britney Spears Conservatorship. As a reminder, the California Probate Court authorized her father, Jamie Spears, to make medical and financial decisions for her in the late 2000s. Jamie Spears has had some sort of control over his daughter since that time. Recently, Britney Spears has made multiple attempts to modify the Conservatorship and remove her father as Conservator. Last year, Britney and her attorneys were successful replacing Jamie Spears as Conservator of Britney’s Person with a Professional Fiduciary Jodi Mont and bringing in Bessemer Trust to act as Co-Conservator of the Estate with Jamie.
BRITNEY’S COURT STATEMENT
However, on June 23, 2021, she made direct comments to the Court stating that not only did she want her father gone completely, she wanted the entire Conservatorship terminated. Read Britney’s full statement here.
The general gist of Britney’s explosive statement was that she finds the Conservatorship to do more harm than good. She wants it to end. Spears stated that she has not wanted the Conservatorship in place for years. She finds the level of control people have over her abhorrent, even going so far as to describe how the Conservatorship is preventing her from removing her IUD (birth control) so she can have more children.
If the Conservatorship is truly as horrible as Britney stated yesterday, then why did her attorney, Samuel Ingham, tell the Court in September of last year that the Conservatorship was “voluntary”?
This is a voluntary conservatorship. Conservatee wishes to exercise her right to nominate a conservator of the estate.
And furthermore, why did Mr. Ingham state that the Conservatorship was voluntary given the confidential court records recently obtained by the New York Times where Britney expresses her strong opposition to the Conservatorship? Those sealed documents reveal that as early as 2016 – and possibly before – Britney told the Court Investigator that she wanted the Conservatorship terminated and was “‘sick of being taken advantage of” while “she is the one working and earning her money but everyone around her is on her payroll.” And again, in 2019 Ms. Spears told the Court in a sealed document that she had felt forced by her Conservatorship to perform against her Will as well as spend time at a mental health facility.
So, in 2016 and 2019, her sealed comments stated that she wants out, but in September, 2020, her attorney stated that Britney voluntarily agreed to the Conservatorship?
What is the Role of the Conservatee’s Attorney?
Was Samuel Ingham, Britney’s attorney, doing his job in 2020 and before? What about now? His client (Britney) clearly wanted out, but he was filing paperwork merely seeking to change who was in control. This seems like moving the chairs around the deck of the Titantic. Shouldn’t he be doing exactly what his client wants, i.e. filing a Petition to terminate the Conservatorship?
Well, yes and no. Ingham is Spears’ court appointed counsel. He was not hired directly by Spears, like most attorneys are. The Court appointed a lawyer on its own for her. In fact, one of the issues Spears raises in her statement to the Court is that she wants to hire her own attorney. If you watch the recent documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” she tried to hire Adam Streisand (yes – Barbara’s cousin), but the Judge stated that Britney lacked capacity to do so, and blocked her from hiring counsel of her choice.
Now, a little more detail on “Court Appointed Counsel”: When attorneys are appointed to represent Conservatees, they are appointed pursuant to California Probate Code 1470. I have been appointed pursuant to this section to represent Conservatees such as Britney Spears for well over a decade. Attorneys appointed pursuant to this section have a slightly different responsibility than a traditional attorney. A court appointed attorney’s job is to determine what is in the client’s best interest as compared to doing exactly what the client wants.
This is a fine distinction, but can explained by the following example: if a “traditional” client tells me to jump, I jump. I may tell them that jumping is an imprudent approach and send a CYA letter as to why I advised them not to jump. However, we jump. In a Court appointed counsel scenario, if a client tells me to jump, I have to determine if it is in the best interest of the client to jump before taking any action. That does not mean, however, that I take whatever actions I want without strongly considering the Conservatee’s (or proposed Conservatee’s) wishes.
It appears that Ingham may have discounted Britney’s stated views as well as the direction given to him by Britney. In a 2020 Court hearing, Ingham reportedly likened Britney’s mental capacity to that of a comatose patient, stating that she lacked the mental capacity to sign a sworn declaration regarding her feelings about the Conservatorship.
PETITION TO TERMINATE
So, something is not adding up here. On the one hand, Court documents reveal that Britney has wanted out for years. Spears claimed in her statement that her attorney never told her she could terminate the Conservatorship. California Probate Code 1861 specifically allows the Conservatee to file a Petition to terminate the Conservatorship. CA Probate Code 1863 says that termination can be based upon the “grounds for establishment” no longer existing, or the Conservatorship is no longer required.
Legally speaking, Britney has had the ability to terminate the Conservatorship since its establishment 13 years ago. Is it true that her attorney never told her about it? In her statement, she says that she talks with her attorney multiple times a week. Is it possible that Ingham is not taking Britney seriously? Instead of considering her best interest at all times, is he substituting his judgment for hers and not even advising her regarding legal rights?
In this situation, it’s difficult to know exactly what Mr. Ingham has or has not told Britney. As one might anticipate, however, a Court Appointed Attorney has an ethical duty to ensure his or her client is fully informed about their legal rights – including the ability to Petition for termination of Conservatorship.
LEAST RESTRICTIVE ALTERNATIVE
It may be that a Conservatorship made sense in the late 2000s. However, a Conservatorship can only be approved if it is the “least restrictive alternative.” That is needlessly complicated legal jargon for “no other option.” Essentially, a Conservatorship is a last resort.
It may be that in 2007 or 2008, a Conservatorship was the last resort. However, couldn’t Britney Spears, in 2021, hire a team of lawyers to help her set up an estate plan? Couldn’t she sign a Power Of Attorney? Couldn’t she sign a Health Care Directive? Her lawyer reportedly says that she has the capacity of a comatose patient, but she spoke for 24 minutes straight on this topic and made sense the entire time. So what’s going on here?
Perhaps Britney does have some mental health issues, but many, many people have mental health issues and a Conservatorship is just too extreme for them. Perhaps Spears would mismanage her funds or her estate. She would not be the first celebrity to do so. But it is her money and our country’s freedoms allow one to make foolish decisions with their own money. Perhaps Britney should not have any more children. Again, there are many individuals who should not have children, but do so anyway. There is no law precluding people from having children.
A Conservatorship is not designed to keep people from making bad financial decisions. A Conservatorship is designed to help people who lack mental capacity and are unable to take care of their medical and/or financial affairs; or alternatively, to provide protection from undue influence. The list of celebrities without estate planning despite being worth millions is vast, as is the list of celebrities who appear unable to manage millions of dollars. Britney Spears is in a much better position to avoid this since there is so much media attention on her. In my view, Britney Spears can take action to set up estate planning documents and thus obviate the need for her Conservatorship.
Has nobody told her about this in 13 years? Has her lawyer never told her about this in 13 years? There is an unfortunate conflict of interest here, given that Ingham makes significant profit off of this case (as do so many others). This is a once in a lifetime case that also probably helps Ingham’s business in other ways (referrals, etc).
If, in Ingham’s view, the Conservatorship was truly voluntary, now there can be no doubt that it is not. Whether Britney changed her view, or Ingham misunderstood the situation previously, is unknown. However, if I were Ingham, I would file a Petition for Termination immediately. It may be that Britney may make mistakes after the Conservatorship is terminated, however, we have to let people with capacity make their own mistakes. After reading the transcript of her comments, it strikes me that there is no other choice.
Stay tuned for the next development in Britney Spears’ Conservatorship.
For questions about Conservatorship in the San Francisco Bay Area, call our office at 925-322-1795. For consulting services available to attorneys in California contact Matthew directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.