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How Did the Britney Spears Conservatorship Go So Wrong So Fast?

April Rosenberry


  • Anomalies in the Britney Spears conservatorship started with the rapid pace of the filing and conservator appointment.
  • Another anomaly was the lack of independent representation, and presence of a preexisting trust.
  • Despite being deemed unable to maintain her own finances and health care decisions, she was encouraged to pursue professional commitments.
  • In response to Britney Spears’ case, California Assembly Bill 1663 (A.B. 1663) reformed the major flaws in conservatorships.
How Did the Britney Spears Conservatorship Go So Wrong So Fast?
Leks_Laputin via Getty Images

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I’ve been a tax attorney for more than two decades—initially starting out in mergers and acquisitions and transitioning into estate planning and trust litigation. While I loved Britney Spears songs, she hadn’t been on my radar for years. Last year, my then-paralegal implored me to watch a documentary about Britney’s conservatorship as it involved complex business structures, trust law, and conservatorship litigation. After several nudges, I watched the documentary and was shocked. While I was no stranger to the news reports of Britney’s family law matter and alleged mental health struggles, and also no stranger to the web of hearings and red tape often associated with conservatorships (referred to in many states as “guardianships”), proceedings piqued my interest.

Conservatorships are needed and necessary in many instances to help a person, typically an elderly or differently abled individual, with their health or financial matters when they are unable to act on their own behalf. In California, a conservator of the person may be appointed for a person who is unable to provide for their own physical health, food, clothing, or shelter. A conservator of the estate may be appointed for a person who is substantially unable to manage his or her own financial resources or resist fraud or undue influence.

A parent is among those persons who may nominate a conservator by petition to be appointed by the court. But, prior to granting a conservatorship, per California Assembly Bill 1727, which became law as of January 1, 2008, the court must have made an express finding that the granting of the conservatorship was the least restrictive alternative needed for the protection of the conservatee.

After watching the documentary, I did a little research on Britney’s case. I found a whirlwind of legalities that resulted in a conservatorship headed by Britney’s father that seemed to oppress and exploit her. From the beginning, the pleadings’ pace was rapid, Britney seemed surrounded by lawyers but without an independent voice, and the powers granted were all-encompassing. And she had a trust, making the necessity for a conservatorship of the estate very questionable, at least. So, when a colleague texted me to ask if I would speak about Britney’s conservatorship on the podcast Toxic: The Britney Spears Story (“Chapter 7: Work B*tch”), my reply was simply: “#savebritney.”

Here I will outline some of the anomalies in the conservatorship’s filing in the first place.

Rapid Pace of Appointment

On January 31, 2008, Britney was admitted to UCLA Medical Center on a psychiatric hold after police were called to her home for a child custody dispute. While on the scene, police observed Britney under the influence of an unknown substance, and she was taken to the hospital for treatment.

The next day, February 1, 2008, Britney’s father, Jamie Spears (hereinafter Jamie), petitioned the court to be named her conservator, and the court appointed him as her temporary conservator of the person. The court also appointed Jamie and the lawyer Andrew M. Wallet as temporary co-conservators of Britney’s estate. That same day, the court appointed Samuel D. Ingham III as counsel for Britney. Among others, Jamie and Wallet were given the power to restrict visitors (including any attorneys other than Ingham), revoke all powers of attorney, control all assets, and prosecute civil harassment restraining orders that the temporary conservator deemed appropriate.

Lack of Independent Representation

On February 2, 2008, Adam Streisand, Britney’s then-counsel, emailed attorneys representing Jamie in his various conservator capacities and characterized the conservatorship proceedings as “nothing more than a hostile takeover of our client for improper purposes.” Days later, an order filed February 6, 2008, extending the temporary order, made a finding that Britney lacked capacity to hire Streisand and ordered that Britney lacked the capacity to hire [any] counsel.

Britney was not personally served with notice of the temporary conservatorships, based on ex parte applications by Jamie listing good cause such as harm to her estate and her then-medical treatment. Jamie claimed that giving notice to Britney would alert Osama (Sam) Lutfi, who at that time was deemed a bad influence on Britney. The court found that notice was “given as required by law or dispensed with” and that Ingham indicated that Britney had been “given an opportunity to communicate to the Court through him” (emphasis added); however, she elected not to, so her attendance at the hearing was waived.

On March 11, 2008, Jon Eardley, as attorney for Britney, filed an appeal of the February 1, 2008, orders granting letters of conservatorship over Britney’s person and estate and contested a March 3, 2008, awarding of fees to Ingham of more than $58,000 and to Jamie of $2,500 per week. To bolster the appeal, Eardley on March 17, 2008, filed a declaration by UCLA Professor of Law Emeritus William McGovern stating (and supported with multiple legal citations) that the conservatorship orders were defective because no notice was personally served on Britney. McGovern also poked holes in the declarations filed to support the no-notice requests. However, the conservatorship continued during the appeal, and ultimately the conservatorship remained. On April 28, 2009, Jamie, as conservator, filed for a restraining order against Eardley.

Presence of a Preexisting Trust

Permanent letters were issued on January 9, 2009. In the letters for co-conservators of estate, Jamie and Wallet were given these powers (in addition to many others): revoke all powers of attorneys; modify, amend, or revoke any revocable inter vivos trusts, without a court order; and “pursue opportunities related to professional commitments and activities . . . as long as they are approved by Ms. Spears’ medical team” (emphasis added).

Many people in California create living trusts for the purpose of distributions upon death but also to avoid conservatorships by allowing a trust to hold and direct distributions from that trust upon incapacity. On July 24, 2004, Britney had created the SJB Trust, a revocable inter vivos trust, to hold her assets and allow her to continue managing them as trustee. In 2004 Britney manifested her intent to have her assets held and managed by her trust by executing an assignment, a symbolic transfer of title commonly used in California as a means of “funding” the trust.

In California, powers of attorney for financial and health concerns are typically drafted as a part of an estate planning package that contains a trust, especially as a means of bolstering financial decision-making upon incapacity. The existence or status of any powers of attorney prior to the conservatorship filing remains a lingering question. Although the trust undoubtedly had incapacity provisions to trigger Britney no longer acting as trustee under certain circumstances, Britney was no longer able to act as trustee of her trust when conserved; her nominated successor co-trustees acted on her behalf, which was confirmed by a sister probate action during this same time. Because the trust already had such fail-safe provisions to protect her assets, it is curious why Jamie felt the need for a conservatorship of his daughter’s estate (especially a temporary one with no notice to Britney).

Continuing Profession Commitments

Equally puzzling is why Britney, found to be unable to maintain their own finances and health care decisions to the point she had no capacity to contract for her own attorney, would be pursuing professional commitments while being medicated, so long as approved by her “medical team.” Jamie was paid in conservatorship capacities but also reportedly got a cut from the professional commitments, all paid for by Britney’s estate.

It wasn’t until June 23, 2021, that the court heard Britney’s own feelings on her father’s involvement with her work engagements; she stated that her father, as conservator, “loved the control to hurt his own daughter 100,000 percent. He loved it.” She also indicated that she was medicated against her will, forced to work, and was punished if she didn’t do what those involved with the conservatorship told her to do.

Control and Ownership of Trust Assets

Britney Touring, Inc. (BTI), was one of many business entities Britney symbolically assigned to her trust in 2004. However, on March 10, 2008, Jamie and Wallet took control and ownership of BTI in their names, as it was in the “best interest of the Trust, the Conservatorship of the Estate and Britney," according to an agreement between the conservators of Britney’s estate (Jamie and Wallet) and her trust’s acting co-trustees (Taback and Bryan; a nominated third co-trustee declined to ever act).  From a planning perspective, holding a corporation in personal names is not ideal for succession, seems contrary to Britney’s intent to have the asset held in trust, and is a conflict of interest because Jamie was acting in multiple fiduciary capacities for Britney at the time BTI was transferred to his name.

In the decade that followed, Britney’s Los Angeles Superior Court conservatorship case, with a register of actions list currently in excess of 1,800 documents, silently steamed ahead with a web of legal activity, mind-numbing volume of business and account transactions, conservator fees, attorneys’ fees, and costs—all paid for by Britney’s estate. On May 3, 2018, Jamie and Wallet executed a first amendment of trust whereby Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney’s sister, was to act as successor trustee, and in lieu of posting a bond (which is the typical course of action when a non-nominated person is tapped to act in a fiduciary capacity), Britney’s trust funds were transferred to a blocked account. As of now, the case still has active filings with the court, even though Jamie is no longer acting in any conservator capacity.

From a legal perspective, one alarming aspect is that Britney had the means to have the health and legal counsel provide a plan for recovery and perhaps avoid such a long-term, all-encompassing conservatorship. But Britney’s fortune may be the very reason the conservatorship was sought to begin with and the reason it played out for so long.

Recent Changes to Conservatorship Laws

On September 30, 2022, California Governor Newsom signed California Assembly Bill 1663 (A.B. 1663) into law to further reform California’s probate conservatorship system in response to Britney’s high-profile case and the #freebritney movement, which highlighted major flaws in conservatorships. A.B. 1663 will require conservatorships be sought as a last resort (by requiring proof of previous attempts at less-restrictive options) and make conservatorships easier to end by providing conservatees with information on their rights and whom to contact if they wish to end their conservatorship. And as surprising as it may be to recognize such a simple right wasn’t afforded before, A.B. 1663 will also require a termination hearing if a conservatee wishes to terminate their conservatorship. A.B. 1663 will go into effect as of January 1, 2023.