Why Does Britney Spears Need a Conservatorship—And What Does it Mean to Have One?

Her father has had control of her finances, among other things, for nearly 12 years—but she's looking to change that.

Britney Spears's fight to remove her father as her sole legal conservator isn't going to be a straightforward one. James Spears has had control over the singer's estate and career—pretty much her whole life, in fact—since 2008. He temporarily stepped down as conservator in 2019 for health reasons, but is due to resume the role later this year—unless Britney and her legal team can make some changes.

Britney's attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, filed a document to the Superior Court of California in Los Angeles on August 17, stating that she is "strongly opposed" to having her father "return as conservator of her person," The New York Times reported. Instead, Britney wants her dad's temporary replacement, licensed professional conservator Jodi Montgomery, to take the role on permanently.

Ingham added that the conservatorship "must be changed substantially" to reflect the "major changes in [Britney's] current lifestyle and her stated wishes."

During a scheduled conference on August 19, Montgomery's role as Britney's conservator was extended through February 1, 2021, according to documents obtained by Entertainment Tonight. Now, Ingham has until September 18 to file a petition for a permanent change—otherwise, James will resume his role after that February 1 deadline.

These legal actions seem to be relatively new for Britney—the 38-year-old, as reported by the NYT, has only rarely commented on the conditions of her conservatorship and hasn't attempted to make many changes to the arrangement. Fans and family members, however, have repeatedly voiced concern over just how much control those around her have on Britney's life and fortune (that's why the #FreeBritney movement surfaced). Here's what you need to know about Britney's situation, including what a conservatorship is, who typically needs one, and how common they tend to be.

What is a conservatorship, exactly?

"A conservatorship is a legal concept in which a judicial body appoints a person to assist in managing the affairs of a person who does not have capacity to manage their own affairs," David Reischer, NYC-based attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com, tells Health. "The conservator is responsible for managing the financial matters, healthcare matters, and day-to-day personal matters of the person under the conservatorship, who is typically referred to as the conservatee."

In the August 17 filing, Ingham described how Britney's conservatorship has developed in three marked stages as her personal circumstances have changed over the years. During the first phase—"triage"—her conservators "rescued her from a collapse, exploitation by predatory individuals, and financial ruin."

Britney's performing years, when she had several world tours, a successful Las Vegas residency, and a season as a judge on The X Factor, occurred in the second stage. The current and third stage of the conservatorship reflects the fact that Britney no longer wants to perform.

Why does Britney need a conservatorship?

A conservatorship is most often sought when a person has limited physical or mental capabilities, and needs care and attention from another person or legal entity. It's common for a conservatorship to be in place to assist a person in old age or somebody who is deemed "gravely disabled" by the court, Reischer says, but it's also not unusual to have a conservatorship on mental health grounds for a young adult (Britney was 26 when James Spears was first granted a conservatorship). In fact, Reischer says it may be much more common than most people think.

"Incapacity is not limited by age," he says. "Many individuals are deemed by the court to lack capacity, and age is an almost arbitrary and irrelevant factor when it comes to measuring a person's developmental abilities."

A conservator is necessary for people who are unable to make decisions for themselves in a reasonable and safe way, board-certified psychiatrist and author Gayani DeSilva, MD, tells Health.

What happens in a conservatorship case?

Few details of Britney's conservatorship are in the public domain. But what happened before it made headlines around the world: Britney driving with a baby in her lap, Britney shaving her head on a whim, Britney attacking a car with an umbrella, Britney being wheeled out of her Beverly Hills mansion on a stretcher. She was committed to a psychiatric ward on two occasions in 2008 (known in California as a 5150 hold); it was after the second hold that James Spears petitioned L.A. County Superior Court, per The Guardian, for an emergency "temporary conservatorship." It was made permanent by the end of the year.

While the the exact conservatorship proceedings for Britney's case are unknown, it's not uncommon for an alleged mentally incapacitated person to be evaluated by a psychiatrist. "The psychiatrist's role in conservatorship proceedings is to evaluate the medical, environmental, psychological, behavioral, relationship, and emotional factors that are relevant to the case at hand," Florida-based board-certified psychiatrist Sean Paul, MD, tells Health.

There's a lot that goes into this process, including clinical evaluations and interviews, psychological testing, medical testing as needed (e.g. labs and CT scans), and a full review of all available records. "After putting these pieces of information together, the psychiatrist delivers an objective opinion though written reports, depositions and/or court testimony," Dr. Paul says.

Is it normal for a conservatorship to last this long?

Britney's conservatorship has been in place for 12 years, which might seem like a long time—but we don't know what's been happening behind the scenes. Fans raised concerns over her mental health in January 2019 when her "Britney: Domination" performance residency in Las Vegas was put on hold indefinitely.

Though much of Spears's arrangement is kept private in a Los Angeles probate court because of her fame, filings have cited an undisclosed mental illness and substance abuse as the reasons for the decade-long conservatorship, per The New York Times. There were also unverified reports that Britney had checked into a mental health facility.

Reischer says the length of a conservatorship varies depending on the circumstances, but adds that it's not unusual for it to continue until the death of the conservatee. "Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, it can be modified or even fully terminated by court order," he adds. Britney can petition the court to end the conservatorship at any time, but she would have to provide enough evidence of changed circumstances to persuade the court to modify or dismiss the order. "Many conservatorships are temporary, but for those with persistent and severe mental illness, a permanent or long-time conservator can be the safest option," Dr. DeSilva says.

In Britney's case, that's about as much as we know right now. Montgomery will remain as Britney's current conservator until at least February 2021—past that, her conservatorship status will depend on how future court proceedings go.

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