For Britney Spears’ legions of fans across the globe, the #FreeBritney movement has been top of mind for years. But in recent months, the hashtag has become more prominent with the release of Hulu’s New York Times-produced documentary, “Framing Britney Spears,” which debuted as the pop star’s legal proceedings over her conservatorship have persisted.
The crux of the buzzy documentary is the peculiar position Spears has been placed under for the past 13 years: She is an international star, stable enough to make music and millions of dollars for herself and others, but yet is being told by the court that she cannot have control of her own life, which is being monitored by her father, Jamie Spears, who has been in charge of her conservatorship since he appointed himself in 2008.
The new doc is one of the most talked-about projects of the year, and has not only brought to light Spears’ highly controversial conservatorship case, but also the complexities of the conservatorship system as a whole.
Stars like Sarah Jessica Parker, Howard Stern, Bette Midler, Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus have lent their support to the star, whose case has even caught the attention of House Republicans, who are urging congress to hold a hearing to #FreeBritney.
In the midst of a long-running legal battle, Spears and her court-appointed attorney are trying to remove her father from being her conservator. Spears’ lawyer has stated that his client is “afraid” of her father and refuses to perform until he is removed from the position. The elder Spears is currently his daughter’s co-conservator, but just last week, an attorney for the Princess of Pop formally requested her father’s resignation from the role, filing a petition for Jodi Montgomery to replace him as the permanent conservator.
While the 39-year-old Spears has remained largely silent over her conservatorship, last week, she posted on her highly-watched Instagram to break her silence on the documentary. “I didn’t watch the documentary but from what I did see of it I was embarrassed by the light they put me in,” Spears’ Instagram caption read. “I cried for two weeks and well…I still cry sometimes!!!!” (Filmmakers for the doc told Variety they tried every way to get to Spears to ask for her participation, but never got a response from the singer’s camp.)
“This is a very abnormal situation,” says legal expert, Sarah Wentz, a partner at the firm Fox Rothschild, who represents high-profile and high-net-worth individuals and specializes in conservatorships, guardianships and estates. The attorney has never worked with Spears and has no affiliation to her conservatorship case.
“There is a very high standard to prove that someone is unable to manage their financial affairs. In the cases I’ve had, most of them have had early onset dementia or Alzheimers,” Wentz says. “The people that I’ve had conservatorships over could not go out and present awards at awards shows or perform in front of a large audience.”
Variety spoke to Wentz about the conservatorship system and Britney Spears’ case.
There are two types of conservatorships: over a person and over an estate. Britney Spears is under both. What exactly is a conservatorship of a person?
A conservator over a person is where someone is appointed to make sure that the person has proper physical health, food, clothing and shelter needs being met. Someone is monitoring daily to make sure that the person is being fed and clothed properly. It’s honestly such a high standard, we almost always see this in cases where a person is mental handicapped in a way where they don’t know how to shower themselves or feed themselves. It’s a pretty dramatic situation.
What exactly is a conservatorship over an estate?
A conservator of an estate is appointed if a court determines that someone is unable to manage his or her financial resources, resist fraud or undue influence. When you say that somebody is unable to manage their own financial affairs, I think it’s important to point out that we’re not all expected to be investment professionals — most of us don’t manage our financial portfolio because we use investors, so, Britney might not be able to invest her own money, but she can certainly hire a financial investment advisor or an accountant who could do that on her behalf. In this case, they have to be able to say that she’s incapable of even hiring a team around her that can handle her financial resources.
A conservatorship is supposed to be an absolute last resort, correct?
Absolutely. There are other steps we take first. Power of attorney and a trust are ways that we avoid this much more onerous process of a conservatorship where you actually have to go into court. This would be the absolute last resort.
You don’t work with Britney and never have been involved with her case, but with your legal expertise of conservatorships and estates, does it appear that something is not right with her case?
I would have had to have seen the evidence that they presented in front of the court to determine if it wasn’t right. But what I will say is that it is highly unusual, which makes me think that there must be shocking, overwhelming evidence to show that this is necessary. This just doesn’t happen. The standard under California law is that there is clear and convincing evidence, so that’s a high bar — that means that they’ve determined there is no way for her to manage her financial affairs without someone completely removing them from her own hands. I can’t say if it’s wrong, but the evidence would have to be so over-the-top and egregious for a judge to let this be continuing for as long as it has.
A major question after viewing the documentary is what exactly is in the documents. Of course, only the judge and Britney’s doctors have that information, but could you even think of a possibility of what that evidence might contain?
I can’t say because I’m not working on this case, but when I think of what a judge must have seen to keep this in place, it makes me think there must be something that’s over the top that they would think that’s absolute necessary. But to play devil’s advocate, if that is the case, then why would her lawyers be asking to unseal the documents? If there was something so egregious, then her lawyers must know that if they unseal the records, all of this stuff is going to come out, so that fights against the argument that there is all of this egregious evidence because her lawyers are arguing that the documents should be unsealed to the public.
Is it typical that all of the documents would be sealed, as they are in Britney’s case?
No, absolutely not. A lot of times, you try to seal things, especially with celebrity clients, but they won’t. It’s not very common.
When are conservatorships typically used?
I have seen conservatorships used when somebody was in a coma, I’ve had dozens of them where the people had significant cognitive impairment from a stroke or dementia and are unable to speak for themselves and unable to write. If somebody is developmentally disabled, when they turn 18, frequently their parents, to continue helping them because they’re now a legal adult, will get a conservatorship put in place, if there are assets that they need to manage for the disabled individual.
Do conservatorships ever deal with individuals battling drug addiction?
I have had a couple of situations where people had really bad drugs problems and the family said that the person was a danger to themselves, so they tried to get a conservator, but I always tell families in that situation that they should prepare for this not to work because if the person can pull it together in court and convince a judge that they are fine mentally, the judge will say no. I have had a couple of cases where I’ve told the families that the judge will not approve a conservator, but since the person had been to rehab and it didn’t work, the family wanted to try — I’ve never had one of those cases be successful.
It sounds like it’s an extremely high bar for a judge to approve a conservatorship.
It would be fascinating to see what the judge thought was so clear and convincing that wouldn’t allow Britney to make her own decisions because technically, you’re allowed to blow your money and you’re allowed to make stupid decisions in life, whether it’s marrying the wrong person or giving all of your money away. As long as you have the ability to tell the judge, “I wanted to do this,” then you’re allowed to do it.
Britney was 26 years old when she was placed under a conservatorship in 2008. How rare is it that somebody that age would be placed under a conservatorship?
Isn’t is very plausible that the original circumstance that put Britney under a conservatorship, at 26, could change over the course of 13 years? And wouldn’t that be a reason that the court might consider removing her from a conservatorship?
Absolutely, and at any given point, you could petition to have a conservatorship removed because you argue that you have the capacity to manage your financial affairs. She could never be barred from asking the court to undo this because the situation could change day to day.
Why is it so difficult to get out of a conservatorship?
It shouldn’t be. To end a conservatorship of an estate, a judge just needs to determine that the person is able to handle their own financial affairs. Period. So, you just have to provide proof that you can handle your own financial affairs.
Is it an option to prove to a judge that you’re capable of hiring someone to handle your financial affairs for you?
Absolutely. You would need to prove to the judge that you understand what was fraud or undue influence, and then could hire the right person to handle your finances. Right now, Bessemer Trust is a co-conservator on Britney’s estate. Well, Britney Spears could hire Bessemer Trust to invest her money. They do that for wealthy individuals. They don’t need to be under a conservatorship. She could literally be working with the same people who are investing her money right now to do that for her, and it might not look any different than what they are doing right now for her, except she would be the one calling those shots.
How can you prove that you can get out of a conservatorship over a person?
You need to prove that you can manage your own care needs — housing, clothing, showering and things like that. For example, if someone has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and they are on 10 different types of medication and have to take those drugs daily, they might have to show that they can manage those medications. I think of a situation I just had with a 94-year-old who certainly couldn’t manage all of his medications, but he had 24-hour caregivers that he hired to be in his house to manage all of his medications, and he didn’t need to be under a conservatorship because he was capable of hiring people. So, even in the situation with a 94-year-old who couldn’t read his own medicine bottles, we still set up a way that worked. You don’t just jump into a conservatorship because you can’t personally handle something yourself and may need some help to get you there.
Have you ever successfully terminated a conservatorship for any of your clients?
I’ve never had a situation to end a conservatorship where everyone wasn’t on board. I just did one where we terminated the conservatorship, and we had a hearing, the judge asked a lot of questions, a person spoke on the person’s behalf and fielded the questions, and at the end of the day, they terminated it. This particular individual had a medical diagnosis of being developmentally disabled, but was high functioning. We had a conservatorship when he turned 18 and he is in his mid-20s now, and we were able to monitor that period of time to prove that he was okay to manage his financial affairs. Now, we weren’t dealing with $60 million, but it is the same process.
So, it is technically possible to get out of a conservatorship, but how difficult is it?
Most conservatorships are for people who have something like Alzheimer’s so they end up passing away, so it’s very rare that you terminate them because the reason they need it in the first place is because they don’t get better so, this is highly abnormal in the first place. But because I just had that case where we terminated, it is possible — but I can’t think of another circumstance where we terminated.
Are you saying that the case you recently worked on is the only conservatorship you’ve ever terminated in your entire legal career?
I can count on one hand how many times I’ve gotten a conservatorship terminated. That recent one, plus another one maybe 15 years ago.
Britney was put under her conservatorship in 2007, after she shaved her head and hit a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella. To be honest, a lot of celebrities have had public scandals and “breakdowns,” but I can’t think of any other celebrity who is under a conservatorship.
If you look at all of the people who have had ups and downs in the media, if those are the standards, then half of Hollywood should be under a conservatorship. I don’t want to pick any names, but you can think of countless situations where someone has acted out and there is footage of them doing so. That happens to a good portion of people who are subjected to the same type of media scrutiny as Britney, so I don’t know what’s so different about her. Why do all these other people get to, quite frankly, make dumb decisions with their estate, but with hers, we are going to force her into this situation?
Britney has not asked to get out of her conservatorship. She has only asked to remove her father from being in charge of her conservatorship. How difficult is it to remove a conservator?
That’s what I think she is struggling against right now. Even if she might have personal issues with her father, there is probably no evidence that he’s legally done anything wrong. The court may say he’s been doing a fine job because there is no evidence that he hasn’t been increasing the value of the estate, making the right investment decisions and looking out for her best interest, so the court might not have any grounds to remove him. Now, if there are personal problems, a court could certainly say that even though he’s not done anything wrong, it’s just a toxic situation. That a little harder to do though because the only way to truly remove somebody is for cause that they’ve done something wrong — and not getting along with your parent is not enough reason for cause for a court to remove him.
Britney’s lawyer has said that she is afraid of her father and will not perform until her father is removed. What does that indicate to you?
I’m not saying it’s a winning argument, but I think they can make an argument that if she’s absolutely unwilling to perform, due to his involvement, that having him there is actually harming the overall conservatorship estate because she won’t be able to make money — as long as she refuses to put more money in his hands to manage, then it’s causing financial harm to her individually, so they need to remove him to be acting in her best interest. I’m guessing that’s where they’re going with that.
What is a typical salary for conservators?
It’s usually an annual percentage. Usually, they charge 1-2% of the assets under management. In Britney’s case, that’s real money.
The documentary raises questions about Jamie Spears’ motives, given the money that is being made in his role as her conservator. Do you think those are valid questions?
What I can say is that if she was having such strain with him, I don’t know why someone else can’t do this for her. I don’t know why it has to be him. There are other qualified people out there that could serve as a conservator. Knowing that there are other professionals who could do that, you could question what his motives are if he has to stay involved.
The New York Times published court documents last week that show Britney is paying roughly $10,000 per work day for her father’s lawyers to fight against her in court. On top of that, she also has to pay for her own legal team that is appointed by the court. Is it typical for people under a conservatorship to pay for both sides of the legal battle?
Yes, unfortunately. If you were to find that there was wrongdoing, then you could try to charge them personally for the fees it took to get them out. But there would have to be a specific allegation of fraud, in order to ask the court that the person be charged with that expense.
Is there someone in charge of making sure conservators don’t breach their duties or abuse their position?
No. But you have to file accountings under a conservatorship with the court, and that is when the court looks at what has been going on and what money has been spent on. If there are questions, the court would come back and ask for more detail and documentation on certain expenses and the court will actually hear testimony.
Britney wanted to hire her own attorney, but she was told that she was mentally unfit to do so, which is why she has a court-appointed attorney. The attorney she met with said on-camera in the documentary that he believed Britney to be fit to hire him. Can you explain that process?
That’s the double-edged sword, and maybe part of the reason why it might be so difficult to get out of this. If you’re unfit to manage your own financial affairs, then you’re unfit to enter into a contract, which would include hiring a lawyer. Legally, that attorney wouldn’t be able to enter into an engagement letter with her. It’s a tricky situation.
Any time there is a high-profile celebrity case, media attention is not supposed to impact what’s happening in the courtroom. But in this case, there is an entire movement with people saying Britney is being held against her will. Would a judge ever consider what’s happening in the documentary or on social media?
As a judge, you can’t not be aware that this stuff is going on, but unless its presented in the case, you can’t use it. But obviously, any judge on this case must be aware and is looking at it very, very carefully.
Britney’s lawyer acknowledged the fans and the #FreeBritney campaign in a legal letter filed last fall. What do you think is the legal strategy there?
In a way, I think they are trying to use it to show the judge, just to make sure that they’re being particularly careful to look at all the evidence that is out there — but Britney’s lawyers have to be really careful in what they submit because some of the conspiracy theory stuff would discredit the case, so they want to be very selective in what they might put in front of the judge. On the other side, her father’s lawyers could perhaps be submitting the other side of that, showing that it’s just a bunch of conspiracy theorists or however they might be trying to paint the #FreeBritney movement.