Shortly after noon on a sunny day last May, reporters staking out the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s Stanley Mosk Courthouse downtown spotted Britney Spears hand in hand with her mother, Lynne, sneaking through a side door and taking pains to avoid the earnest crowd of devoted fans parading outside with #FreeBritney signs.
It was a rare appearance by the Princess of Pop, whose court-appointed attorney, Samuel Ingham III, usually represented her alone in these proceedings. Each year, rules of the probate court require a review of the status of the legally mandated conservatorship headed by her father, Jamie, compelling the parties involved to justify continuing the arrangement that for more than a decade has controlled every aspect of Britney’s business and personal life since her well-documented and very public breakdown in 2008.
For months rumors had been swirling in the press and on Britney fan sites that the 38-year-old mother of two was chafing under the conservatorship, and this bright spring day might see her liberated from its restrictions. After all, hadn’t the gossip website TMZ
reported that Lynne was going to ask the court to relieve her ex-husband Jamie from his role as their daughter’s conservator? For the #Free-Britney movement—a feisty, contentious, and often daffy online community obsessed with releasing the singer from the constraints of her father’s oversight—it seemed the moment of truth was at hand.
With five No. 1 singles, six No. 1 albums, and 150 million records sold worldwide, Britney is ranked by Billboard as the eighth-biggest artist of the first decade of this century; since being placed in the conservatorship, she’s completed four world tours, recorded four albums, and, from December 2013 through December 2017, performed 248 sold-out shows of her concert series, Britney: Piece of Me, at the Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. Ranked the fifth-highest-paid female performer in the business, Britney holds the record for an entertainer’s single-night take in Vegas ($1,172,000). All of it adding up to a personal net worth of more than $60 million.
But her booming career screeched to a halt last January. Her concert series, Domination, booked into the Park MGM Theater in Vegas with brisk ticket sales, was abruptly called off. The official explanation for the cancellation: A ruptured colon had sidelined her father. “It’s important to always put your family first,” Britney posted on Instagram. “I had to make the difficult decision to put my full focus and energy on my family at this time. I hope you all can understand.”
It was reported, however, that Britney’s meds, allegedly for a bipolar condition, had either quit working, or she’d stopped taking them— or both—and that she was going on indefinite hiatus. “We all need to take time for a little ‘me time,’ ” she confided on Instagram, adding a smiley face. Fans were not smiley faced to hear her manager, Larry Rudolph, tell TMZ that his client might never work again.
Presiding over a packed courtroom in Probate Department 4 that May afternoon, Judge Brenda Penny—at Ingham’s request the hearing was closed to the public—ordered a medical evaluation of Britney to be delivered September 18. Without opposition from the singer, which would legally have to come through Ingham, the conservatorship that had bound the singer through her 30s remained in force.
As her bodyguards escorted Britney to an SUV idling outside the courtroom, the performer suddenly slipped off her shoes and padded barefoot to the car. To the #FreeBritney contingent gathered on the sidewalk, it was a tiny act of rebellion, a show of independence, or maybe just what a girl from a small Louisiana town does after being on her heels way too long. Within moments, TMZ had posted photos of the barefoot star, pointing to the “bizarre” behavior as yet another sign of her apparent decline.
The fans congregated at the courthouse were dismissed as stans, but they defy easy categorization, and the #FreeBritney movement sees her case as part of a larger issue.
“The media has spent more time worrying about Britney taking her heels off after court yesterday than they have about the very real possibility that her civil rights may have been being violated for the past 11 years,” tweeted [email protected] “Our society is a mess,” she pleaded. Larding their pop idol fandom with woke social commentary, the #FreeBritney activists have charted a surprising course; by tackling Britney’s unusual case, they are shining a light on one of the most urgent issues facing legal professionals and legislatures across the country.
Known in most states as a legal guardianship—California uniquely calls it a conservatorship—the court-ordered arrangement that governs Britney’s personal and professional life is applied mostly to the elderly or disabled. It is divided, in legal terms, between a conservatorship of the estate (ongoing business and assets) and a conservatorship of the person (health and well being). Following her notorious head-shaving flip-out and hospitalization in 2008 for undisclosed mental health issues—said to be a bipolar condition requiring medication—Britney is bound by law to follow the direction of attorneys, fiduciaries, and medical consultants, including her 67-year-old father, who constitute both sides of her conservatorship team.
After her spectacular breakdown at the age of 28, any resistance Britney may have offered to the conservatorship was quashed at the beginning of the proceedings, when she attempted to hire veteran estate and trust litigator Adam Streisand to represent her. Despite conflicting medical reports about her mental health, the judge eventually ruled that she was not competent to hire her own attorney, and Ingham was appointed to the post. According to court records, Ingham’s standard hourly rate is as much as $695, but he’s charging Britney a discounted rate of $475. Even so, according to a recent court filing for October 1, 2017, through September 30, 2018, he was paid $331,940.50 for his services—roughly $15,000 a month.
Britney pays the conservatorship more than $1 million a year in legal fees and other expenses, including $15,000 a month to a court-appointed attorney she didn’t choose
Like most people in her situation, Britney is required to cover the costs of her conservatorship. They aren’t cheap. Publicly accessible records meticulously detailing her annual expenses (including more than 80 trips to Target in 2018) reveal that the singer, whose court-mandated accounting shows a net worth north of $60 million, pays more than $1 million a year in fees to her overseers. When the attorney Andrew Wallet, originally appointed in 2008 alongside Jamie Spears as coconservator, desired a raise in 2018 (claiming he had been instrumental in boosting Britney’s assets by $20 million), he petitioned the court to be paid $426,000 annually. Despite getting the raise, Wallet resigned last year, with some speculating that he’d fallen out with Spears pére.
Wallet “didn’t resign because he didn’t like the color of money,” Streisand says today, acknowledging the appetite of professional fiduciaries for high-net-worth conservatorships. For Wallet that has included the much-discussed case of former Warner Bros. Studio boss Terry Semel, whose compensation from his last post, a six-year run as CEO of Yahoo before succumbing to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, was estimated at a half billion dollars. When Semel’s second wife, Jane, relocated the former executive in 2016 from the family’s Bel Air estate to a residence at the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement facility in Woodland Hills, she was sued by his first wife and his son Eric. Eric charged that his father was unhappy in what some regard as “the old actors’ home,” that he was isolated, denied adequate health care, and that the MPTF facility failed to meet the mogul’s usual standard of living. Acting as the son’s lawyer, Streisand pushed the court to appoint an independent conservator, and Wallet was given the temporary post. But the Semel clan reached a confidential agreement before things went further; the 76-year-old former studio head continues to reside in a two-room suite at the Stark Villas on the MPTF campus, according to reports, along with residents such as singer Helen Reddy, who performed at the 2019 MPTF fundraiser. For the single week he served as Semel’s temporary conservator, Wallet was paid $5,100 by the family trust. Meanwhile, Wallet’s website continues to advertise him as “formerly coconservator of the estate of Britney Jean Spears.”
It is this sort of fraught legal maneuvering that the #FreeBritney faithful are convinced is constraining a demonstrably competent entertainer. “We want the conservatorship to end,” said Babs Gray, a stand-up comic and fan of Britney’s since childhood. Pursuing that goal, she and Tess Barker, her partner in the Lady to Lady comedy podcast, have become #FreeBritney’s ringleaders thanks to Britney’s Gram, the popular podcast Gray and Barker launched as a sideline in 2014. Each episode presents the duo riffing on the singer’s whimsical and, often enough, enigmatic Instagram posts. The project started as a lark, Gray told me, “but once we got that voicemail, it took a darker turn.”
The voicemail in question was left for them in April 2019 by a listener who claimed to be a former paralegal with one of the law firms overseeing Britney’s business interests. The putative whistle-blower’s tensely worded message questioned the validity of the conservatorship, alleged that Britney was resisting her overseers, and she had been forcibly medicated and committed against her will to a mental ward for a much longer period than had been publicly disclosed. “That confirmed our worst fears,” said Junior Olivas, a 32-year-old #FreeBritney rally regular from Highland Park, who is among the podcast’s listeners. “We know she wants out of this.”
“It’s no secret that Britney hasn’t been at the same level since her notorious meltdown,” said Kevin Wu, a 35-year-old data analyst who lives in Hollywood. Wu said he saw Britney’s Piece of Me show in Vegas in 2013, and “I felt she was going through the motions, and it was sad.” The voicemail message on the podcast “confirmed to me that the conservatorship is the reason she couldn’t return to the level she’s had before—not because of mental issues but because she didn’t have control—personal and creative,” Wu added.
Authentic or not—Gray and Barker said they verified the whistle-blower’s identity, but wouldn’t say exactly how—the anonymous tip galvanized fans, and the #FreeBritney army hit the streets in force for the May 10 rally at the singer’s conservatorship hearing. Resolving to regroup at the courthouse September 18—a much more critical hearing because the expert report evaluating her mental health was due to be delivered—fans online nurtured the hope that perhaps the conservatorship would be dissolved.
“I’ve been trying to find out who that so-called paralegal is,” said an attorney who serves the Spears management team, speaking on the condition that he remain unidentified. He said he highly doubts that the informant exists. “These fans don’t understand anything about the law or conservatorships, and, frankly, they’re going a little crazy with these conspiracy theories. There are some unstable people out there. We’ve been getting threats.”
Britney herself sent the same message on Instagram shortly after the Britney’s Gram voicemail episode April 23, 2019, pleading with fans, “things that are being said have just gotten out of control!!! Wow!!! There’s rumors, death threats to my family and my team, and just so many crazy things being said. I am trying to take a moment for myself, but everything that’s happening is just making it harder for me. Don’t believe everything you read and hear.”
But was Britney, in fact, posting this message herself or … ?
In the era of Fake News, rampant disinformation, and wild conspiracy theories, the idea that one of the world’s most famous entertainers could legally be held against her will by a nefarious team, including her father, those overseers taking over her social media to ward off critics and enriching themselves at her expense, seems like yet another outlandish fantasy. But that is more or less the underlying theory held by many of the fans mobilizing online—Britney has 56 million Twitter followers and 23 million on Instagram—who commiserate, conspire, collude, bicker, and banter using the frequently trending #FreeBritney handle.
Questioning the “Cship,” as the fans abbreviate “conservatorship” on Twitter, can be risky. Just ask Jordan Miller, a University of Las Vegas graduate with a degree in journalism and media studies who started a Britney fan blog called BreatheHeavy.com in his parents’ basement in 2004 when he was 15, the same year Facebook debuted. Now an expansive pop culture website with 2 million to 3 million page views monthly and 200,000 followers, BreatheHeavy’s main action is in the Exhale chat room on the Britney Exchange, where a worldwide community converses across time zones and cultural divides about all things Britney. Miller is credited (or blamed, depending on one’s point of view) with creating the FreeBritney phrase. In 2008 he started posting that the Cship’s leaders were unduly profiting. As the site’s audience exploded, he was hit with a cease-and-desist order from Jamie Spears. “I was 19 years old,” Miller said. “It was scary.”
Miller is not alone in facing the wrath of the Cship. Anthony Elia, the New Jersey fan behind the popular blog AbsoluteBritney.com is currently being sued for defamation by Jamie. Britney’s business manager, Lou Taylor, is suing 30-year-old Bryan Kuchar, a medical assistant at an Atlanta-area hospital, for defamation and harassment involving a website he created that charged that Taylor, CEO of Tri Star Sports & Entertainment Group, one of the industry’s top management firms (Reba McEntire, Jason Derulo, Mary J. Blige, Steven Tyler) and her husband, Rob Taylor, pastor of Calvary Chapel Brentwood, are supporters of Mercy Multiplied. The Nashville-based Christian nonprofit, formerly known as Mercy Ministries, was the subject of several unflattering exposes alleging that the group administers a form of conversion therapy, the discredited and in some states illegal practice of attempting to change the sexual orientation of gay men and women. (Mercy Multiplied denies the allegation.)
An award-winning Los Angeles Times series in 2005 estimated that there were 500 professional conservators in California who oversee a combined $1.5 billion in assets and hold “legal authority over at least 4,600 of California’s most vulnerable adults.” The series focuses on Frumeh Labow, “Los Angeles’ busiest conservator who sets a minimum of $300,000 [in conservatee assets]—enough to guarantee her a paycheck for at least a few years, if the client lives that long.” Other conservators have a more modest threshold, says the series. “ ‘If the person has six months, the doctor tells me she has terminal cancer and she only has $30,000, I’ll take a chance on that,’ said Jeffrey Siegel, who runs a large Los Angeles practice.”
Siegel, whose Siegel & Associates is located on Wilshire Boulevard near downtown L.A., is a lawyer with one of the busiest professional fiduciaries in the conservatorship business. He is the conservator of Elizabeth Sanders Kane, the widow of Batman creator Bob Kane, who died in 1998. Although in the public eye as recently as 2015, when she participated in the unveiling of her late husband’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Kane has dementia and is assisted 24-7 by caretakers. With no children or siblings, and estranged over the years from her family—despite the fact that someday the conservators will be seeking to disperse the Batman fortune, worth at least $46 million, among more than a dozen first cousins—Kane has few visitors at her West Hollywood condo, except for Lori Murphy, a first cousin twice removed and the only member of Elizabeth’s family in L.A. Murphy petitioned the court twice over the past two years to have Siegel removed as Kane’s conservator.
“They’ve put up so many roadblocks,” Murphy told me. Siegel, she said, has prohibited Murphy from visiting Kane at home. In addition, all meetings must be approved by the court-appointed medical consultant and be arranged—apparently with great difficulty, according to email exchanges Murphy showed me—by Kane’s court-appointed attorney, Ingham, who bills six figures annually to the Britney conservatorship while charging Kane only $450 an hour instead of his standard rate, according to court records.
“It’s all about billable hours,” said Linda Kincaid, founder of the Coalition for Elder & Disability Rights (CEDAR). “Their mantra is ‘isolate, medicate, rob the estate.’” Kincaid said she welcomes the #FreeBritney spotlight on the issue at a time when activists across the country are just beginning to battle what critics bash as a predatory industry aimed at tapping the fortunes of society’s most vulnerable, which happens to include the nation’s fastest -growing demographic, people 65 and older. CEDAR is one of a number of organizations around the country—including the Center for Estate Administration Reform in North Carolina, Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship in Florida, and the Spectrum Institute in California—aimed at reforming America’s system of safeguarding those who cannot look out for themselves.
“We are witnessing the greatest wealth transfer in history,” said Rick Black, who founded the Center for Estate Administration Reform after conservators in Las Vegas drained his father-in-law’s estate of $220,000. With the average net worth of 75-year-olds in the U.S. at $300,000, Black estimates that $1.5 trillion is passing generationally each year due to illness or death. Probate courts handling that wealth, especially in warm-weather cities with large retirement populations, are increasingly attracting attorneys and professional fiduciaries who know how to work the system to their benefit.
The Guardians, a wrenching 2018 documentary by filmmaker Billie Mintz about widespread probate abuse, was screened recently at UCLA Law School as part of a conference on conservatorship and guardianship abuse. The discussion afterward went beyond how probate pirates across the country are raiding high-net-worth people like Britney. The worst abuses are now occurring in cities where professional conservators are targeting the elderly who reside in gentrifying neighborhoods, working hand in hand with realtors, developers, and sometimes members of feuding families to gain legal control. They can then remove the old folks from their homes—often against their will—institutionalize them, and rapidly acquire and flip aging housing stock.
In California the victims of conservatorship abuse, according to Dr. Beth Ribet, director of REPAIR, a nonprofit focused on health and disability justice, are increasingly African-American and Latino seniors who may have few assets other than a home they scrimped to purchase decades ago. New legislation recently signed by Governor Gavin Newsom at the urging of probate reformers is supposed to help prevent the easy sale by conservators of the houses of aging inhabitants, for whom the law prescribes remaining in “the least restrictive environment.” But in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like Compton, Inglewood, and East L.A., the measure might be too late. The result is “the escalating displacement of families of color, moving community assets out of communities of color,” said Ribet. She noted that conservatorship abuse is also contributing to homelessness as some residences targeted by professional conservators are inhabited by multigenerational family members, possibly disabled and without recourse, and serve as a last defense against life on the streets.
As the September 18 court date neared, things were heating up in the #FreeBritney chat rooms and Twitter feeds across the country. From Denver, digital strategist Cody Brant used his online marketing skills, once utilized in service of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, to mobilize Britney fans on Facebook and Instagram before grabbing a plane for L.A. At Wu’s house, not far from Paramount Studios, neon-pink poster boards were spread across the dining room table, along with a rainbow collection of Sharpies and Magic Markers and a list of messages to be added to the future protest signs:
> GIVE BRITNEY HER VOICE/POWER
> GIVE BRITNEY CONTROL OF HER LIFE
> BRITNEY DESERVES AUTONOMY
>BRITNEY IS AN ABLE-BODIED 38-YEAR-OLD WOMAN WITH THE RIGHTS OF A CHILD
> FRAUDULENT CONSERVATORSHIP
On the day of the hearing, 50 or so chanting #FreeBritney partisans mobilized outside the Mosk courthouse—“Hey, hey, ho, ho, the conservatorship has got to go!”—while inside the protesters’ bête noir, Jamie, relinquished part of his duties in the conservatorship in the wake of a fracas with Britney’s sons at his Ventura County home. TMZ reported that an argument escalated to the point that 13-year-old Sean locked himself in a room, until his grandfather kicked the door in and grabbed him. Kevin Federline, the boys’ father, reported the incident to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, requesting a restraining order and accusing his ex-father-in-law of child abuse.
Judge Penny appointed professional fiduciary Jodi Montgomery as Britney’s temporary personal conservator, replacing Jamie. Montgomery has the power to manage all visitors; hire caretakers and security for Britney; prosecute civil harassment restraining orders, such as the five-year restraining order recently filed against the singer’s former manager Sam Lutfi; and exercise oversight on health care, with full access to Britney’s medical records. Jamie continues to manage the singer’s business affairs, and the conservatorship continues, at least for the time being. On August 24, just two weeks before he was supposed to deliver his evaluation of Britney’s state of mind, court-appointed psychiatrist Dr. Timothy Benson died of an aneurysm. His untimely passing caused Penny to delay the next hearing until January 22. One last motion was filed: Montgomery needed to be paid. The motion was granted, adding one more line item to the court-ordered accounting that each year details the $1 million-plus tab that Britney is paying for the Cship, including her father’s $16,000 monthly salary.
At home in her Hidden Hills mansion, a gated community in the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley where neighbors include Miley Cyrus, Sharon Osborne, and Kanye West, along with several Kardashians and Jenners, Britney appears to be enjoying her sequestered life, at least according to her Instagram. Her message on Thanksgiving: “So much to be grateful for over these holidays !!!!!” The day before, she shared her current self-help reading by posting the cover of The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Toltec spiritualist and neoshamanist Don Miguel Ruiz. Not long after Halloween, she showed off her costume, posing with her 25-year-old boyfriend, Sam Asghari: “I was also Maleficent for Halloween with this sexy guy.”
The fact that Asghari, an Iranian-born model and personal trainer, wasn’t born when Spears was appearing on The Mickey Mouse Club along with Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, and then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, seems to make no difference. They met when he was cast as the handsome dude Britney spots across a crowded room in her 2016 “Slumber Party” video. Introduced to the world as Britney’s boyfriend via her Instagram on New Year’s Day 2017, they walked their first red carpet together last July—to the paparazzi’s delight—at the premiere of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
It’s not clear who is behind the camera that is documenting these episodes of the pop star’s life, and the more conspiratorial among her fans have expressed doubts about who actually controls their idol’s social media. She has not given an in-person interview since her conservatorship began. Taken on its own terms, Britney’s Instagram gives the impression of a very fortunate person enjoying her life with family, a healthy romance, and a determination to stay fit physically and mentally. Asghari’s supportive role is transmitted through his Instagram. When Britney reportedly entered one of L.A.’s more exclusive rehabs in April of last year for undisclosed problems, he posted: “It isn’t weakness, It’s a sign of absolute strength, people should only be inspired by this, at least I am.”
Whatever she was going through last April, the episode served as a reminder of the bizarre behavior that caused a judge nearly a dozen years ago to agree to the extreme measure of a court-ordered conservatorship. Beginning with her whirlwind marriage to dancer Federline in 2004, served up for public consumption in a five-episode 2005 reality series, her judgment came into further question when paparazzi captured her driving with Sean, then a toddler, on her lap. A split with Federline in 2006 ultimately resulted in joint custody of Sean and his younger brother, Jayden. In early 2007 the tabloids reported a 24-hour check-in-and-out of a Caribbean rehab facility, with a surprise visit shortly thereafter to Esther’s Hair Salon in Tarzana, where she begged owner Esther Tognozzi to shave her head; when Tognozzi tried to dissuade her, the singer grabbed the electric shears and did the job herself. Immediately after, the newly bald star acquired two tattoos, one on her wrist and the other on her hip, at the Body & Soul tattoo parlor nearby in Sherman Oaks.
“She’d probably be dead now without it,” said an insider about Britney’s conservatorship
By January 2008, following a standoff with police over a scheduled visitation with their father, she lost complete custody of her children. A subsequent incident that brought out the police and fire departments resulted in her commitment to UCLA Medical Center on a 72-hour psychiatric hold. “She was driving around her neighborhood like a madwoman,” a Spears family source told People. “Britney has been prescribed medication which she refuses to take. This is just another sad, sad evening.” Heavily redacted court documents indicate recent incidents have resulted in Britney granting 70 percent custody of her children to her ex; the expert evaluation at the January 22 hearing will determine her future as an entertainer and a parent.
If the September hearing was a victory for Team Cship—“She’d probably be dead now without it,” said one insider, claiming to have seen Britney’s medical files—it was a disappointment to her fans. But whether the entertainer’s conservatorship is justified or not, it’s a good thing that her supporters—mostly millennials who came of age to the beat of “Oops!…I Did It Again”—are getting involved, says CEDAR’s Kincaid. “With civil rights movements, historically, those impacted are the ones who march. People in conservatorships can’t do that. They need someone to fight for them.”
The irony, of course, is that the former Disney child star—whose jailbait image in plaid miniskirt and knee socks once incited older male lust, and whose “entire appeal is in denying her entire appeal,” wrote Elizabeth Wurtzel when Britney was still dating Timberlake—is today a cautionary tale for everyone pushing a walker or about to. Is your Durable Power of Attorney notarized? Have you updated your will and final health directives?
“Britney’s not the first, and she won’t be the last,” said @LawyersForBritney’s Malena Rubino, “unless there’s reform of the laws on conservatorships.”