COMMENTARY

Britney Spears and Her 13-Year Conservatorship: An Abuse of Involuntary Care?

Dinah Miller, MD

Disclosures

July 08, 2021

The public has watched the ongoing drama unfold in the media for the past 13 years. In 2008, pop star Britney Spears was placed on conservatorship — a court process that gave decision-making powers over her personal, legal, and financial decisions to another person.

On June 23, 2021, Ms. Spears announced in open court that she is traumatized by being conserved and wants her rights back, but we know little about what behaviors left her family and a judge to determine that she was not capable of managing her own affairs, and why this would remain the case for so many years. This is an important conversation for those interested in involuntary care.

Adam Nelson, MD, practices psychiatry in Marin County, Calif. He explained in an interview that there are different types of conservatorships. "Probate conservatorship is the traditional path for conservatorship of person, estate, and/or finances based on evidence of incapacity due to any medical condition. This is the type of conservatorship that Britney Spears has had and which she is now contesting."

Ms. Spears was placed on conservatorship after two involuntary hospitalizations for psychiatric illness and/or substance abuse. Her father, Jamie Spears, was appointed by the court to be her conservator.

In a New York Times article, reporters Liz DaySamantha Stark, and Joe Coscarelli recently wrote: "But now, confidential court records obtained by the New York Times reveal that Ms. Spears, 39, expressed serious opposition to the conservatorship earlier and more often than had previously been known, and said that it restricted everything from whom she dated to the color of her kitchen cabinets."

The article goes on to say: "The newly obtained court records show that Ms. Spears questioned [her father's] fitness for the role. As early as 2014, in a hearing closed to the public, Ms. Spears's court-appointed lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, said she wanted to explore removing her father as conservator, citing his drinking, among other objections on a 'shopping list' of grievances.

"As the fight drags on, the bills are piling up — and, in a quirk of the conservatorship system, Ms. Spears has to pay for lawyers on both sides, including those arguing against her wishes in court. A recent $890,000 bill from one set of Mr. Spears's lawyers, covering about 4 months of work, included media strategizing for defending the conservatorship."

The case heated up at the June 23 hearing, when Ms. Spears had a telephone hearing with Los Angeles probate Judge Brenda Penney. The call was transcribed and published in Variety. The purpose of the hearing was for Ms. Spears to request an expedited release from her conservatorship without a psychiatric evaluation.

Ms. Spears began her 23-minute testimony to the judge by discussing her work and how she felt compelled to perform. "My management said, if I don't do this tour, I will have to find an attorney, and by contract my own management could sue me if I didn't follow through with the tour...So out of fear, I went ahead and I did the tour."

She then discussed concerns by her manager that she was not complying with her medication regimen.

"Three days later, after I said no to Vegas," Ms. Spears continued, "my therapist sat me down in a room and said he had a million phone calls about how I was not cooperating in rehearsals, and I haven't been taking my medication. All this was false. He immediately, the next day, put me on lithium out of nowhere. He took me off my normal meds I've been on for 5 years...There were six different nurses in my home and they wouldn't let me get in my car to go anywhere for a month."

She spoke about entering rehab at the insistence of the conservatorship, and relayed her distress about this experience. She talked poignantly about her frustration of feeling she was not being heard by the court the last time she spoke and about the financial conflicts of interest created by her conservatorship. Ms. Spears, who has appeared on national television, recorded albums, and gone on performance tours during this period, has a net worth estimated at $60 million.

"It's been a long time since I've owned my money. And it's my wish and my dream for all of this to end without being tested," she told the judge. "Again, it makes no sense whatsoever for the state of California to sit back and literally watch me with their own two eyes, make a living for so many people, and pay so many people trucks and buses on the road with me and be told, I'm not good enough. But I'm great at what I do. And I allow these people to control what I do, ma'am. And it's enough. It makes no sense at all."

Finally, Ms. Spears expressed a heart-wrenching desire to have another child and she asserted that the conservatorship will not allow her to see a doctor to have her IUD removed. She talked about being required to go to therapy three times a week and contended that she is traumatized by all that has transpired.

Ms. Spears has not filed the necessary paperwork to have her conservatorship ended. In an interview with Vice, attorney Scott Rahn noted that the process to end conservatorship can be a lengthy and difficult path. To do so, she might first need to petition the court to be allowed to hire her own attorney. If uncontested, the conservatorship could possibly be ended within months, but otherwise this could entail a lengthy trial over the course of years. While ending conservatorship may entail discovery, depositions, and hearings over years, a scathing story in the New Yorker detailed how Ms. Spears was placed into this conservatorship in a matter of days, without being present to give her own testimony.

In the usual circumstances, California law requires that the person being conserved must be given 5 days' notice before a conservatorship takes place, but Ms. Spears was deemed to be at risk of substantial harm and the judge allowed for an immediate conservatorship. The article notes that even axe murderers are allowed to hire lawyers, while those placed in conservatorships are not.

Reasoning Behind Such Actions

Often, people are appointed guardians, conservators, or payees because of concerns that their psychiatric or substance use disorders, dementia, or impaired intellectual states lead them to poor decisions that endanger their financial stability. Usually the money they may lose is from a government disability benefit, an inheritance, or former accrued wealth. In this unusual celebrity case, Britney Spears has been conserved while she maintained a rigorous work schedule and actively earned the money she is being protected from spending.

Nelson talked about how people come to be conserved. "The law regarding conservatorship is a state law, but conservatorships in California are done at the county level, and the counties don't have a vested interest in protecting people from themselves unless a third party or a family member comes forward. I imagine there is another side to this story, I have never seen it used like this for someone who is working. Questions remain about why this conservatorship has gone on for 13 years."

Nelson believes that the current California laws leave room for abuse. "If the children of a wealthy parent observes the parent spending their inheritance in a way they don't approve of, they can claim the parent is impaired and needs to be conserved. Usually it doesn't work, but it's possible there are times when the courts are swayed."

Why does it matter and why should psychiatrists be concerned? The issue of involuntary treatment is a contentious one, and the stakeholders on all sides are vocal when it comes to our country's sickest and most vulnerable individuals. Any story with a whiff of abuse, or of someone who is not severely impaired being denied basic civil rights — including the right to refuse treatment — dilutes and stains the efforts of those who are trying to protect people who suffer from chronic psychotic disorders.

And when society reaches further to say that an individual is not entitled to make their own basic life decisions, this further stigmatizes those with psychiatric illnesses. And people with both mental illnesses and substance use disorders often get better, so why would conservatorships be permanent?

Does our society want the courts to protect people from their own poor judgment? Should there be judges at every casino entrance? Where are the conservators for those who live in the streets? Again, this is a half-told story, one where the potential for abuse of the conserved remains a high risk, and the long-term message about involuntary care is one of taking a way a person's rights unnecessarily.

Miller is coauthor of "Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, both in Baltimore. She has no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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