Much has been written about the Britney Spears conservatorship, and most is pure speculation. Here we clarify a few points from a legal perspective and answer some common questions.
What is a conservatorship in California?
A conservatorship in California is the same as what is known as a guardianship in most other states. Like most other states, a conservator can be appointed for either the person, their property, or both. The person who is the subject of the conservatorship is known as the conservatee. A conservator in California is appointed by the probate court in the county where the person in needs resides.
A conservator of the person in California is responsible for the health care and living arrangements of the conservatee. Depending on what the probate court orders, the conservator of the person can also be responsible for who the conservatee is allowed to visit with and socialize with.
A conservator for the person’s property is known as a conservator of the estate. The conservator of the estate is responsible for managing the finances and business affairs of the conservatee.
Who is the conservator of Britney Spears today?
As of February, 2021, Britney Spears has three conservators. Although highly unusual to have three conservators, nothing about the Britney Spears situation is usual. She is reported to have a net worth in excess of $50 million, and owns a significant portfolio of intellectual property, including copyrights to songs and performances. Were she to perform and tour again, the management of such an endeavor is complex. A world famous entertainer would normally have a large number of persons helping to manage all aspects of the entertainer’s personal and business affairs. So, the fact that Britney Spears has three conservators should not be viewed as unusual with respect to her.
At present, a highly regarded professional conservator, Jodi Montgomery, is the conservator of the person. Britney Spears’ father, James Spears, had been serving as conservator of the person since 2008, but asked to be replaced in 2019. There is no indication that this arrangement is presently subject to any dispute.
James Spears had been also serving as conservator of the estate. In 2020, Britney Spears asked the probate court to replace her father with a trust company. In 2020, the probate court refused to remove James Spears as the conservator of the estate, but appointed Bessemer Trust as a co-conservator of the estate. Bessemer Trust is one of the oldest trust companies in the United States, and manages in excess of $100 billion for some of the wealthiest families in the world. In February, 2021, the probate court revisited the issue of conservator of the estate – and once again refused to remove James – leaving James and Bessemer Trust to work together as co-conservators of the estate.
How to remove a conservator in California.
Because the court records for a conservatorship are sealed and most of the proceedings conducted in a closed courtroom, we do not know exactly why James Spears was not removed as a conservator of the estate, despite the fact that Britney Spears requested that the probate court remove him. California law, however, seems to require that a conservator can only be removed for cause. The California probate code provides:
2650. A guardian or conservator may be removed for any of the following causes:
(a) Failure to use ordinary care and diligence in the management of the estate.
(b) Failure to file an inventory or an account within the time allowed by law or by court order.
(c) Continued failure to perform duties or incapacity to perform duties suitably.
(d) Conviction of a felony, whether before or after appointment as guardian or conservator.
(e) Gross immorality.
(f) Having such an interest adverse to the faithful performance of duties that there is an unreasonable risk that the guardian or conservator will fail faithfully to perform duties.
(g) In the case of a guardian of the person or a conservator of the person, acting in violation of any provision of Section 2356.
(h) In the case of a guardian of the estate or a conservator of the estate, insolvency or bankruptcy of the guardian or conservator.
(i) In the case of a conservator appointed by a court in another jurisdiction, removal because that person would not have been appointed in this state despite being eligible to serve under the law of this state.
(j) In any other case in which the court in its discretion determines that removal is in the best interests of the ward or conservatee; but, in considering the best interests of the ward, if the guardian was nominated under Section 1500 or 1501, the court shall take that fact into consideration.
The first nine of the grounds for removal are essentially “for cause” provisions. The last ground given – the best interest of the conservatee – seems not to require wrongdoing. Notably absent from the list of grounds for removal is the expressed desire of the conservatee. Perhaps a court could equate the desire of the conservatee with the “best interests,” and remove a conservator, but that was apparently not done in the Britney Spears situation.
The probate court would probably not have appointed Bessemer Trust to serve as a co-conservator if there were no reason for doing so. So there must be some reasons for the court to have done so, but perhaps those reasons do not rise to the level of removing James Spears for cause.
How to terminate a conservatorship in California.
One of the most puzzling aspects of the entire Britney Spears situation is why she has not requested that the conservatorship be terminated. (Given that court records for conservatorships are kept, for the most part, sealed, there is no way to know for sure that she has not asked the probate court to terminate the conservatorship, but there have been no news reports that she has in fact made this request.)
California law provides that anyone connected with the conservatorship may request that it be terminated. The California probate code provides:
1861. (a) A petition for the termination of the conservatorship may be filed by any of the following:
(1) The conservator.
(2) The conservatee.
(3) The spouse, or domestic partner, or any relative or friend of the conservatee or other interested person.
(b) The petition shall state facts showing that the conservatorship is no longer required.
The fact that no one connected with Britney Spears, including Spears herself, has requested that the conservatorship be terminated is certainly indicative of something important – that perhaps she does not actually want it terminated. There is no attempt to reconcile the growing #FreeBritney movement with her apparent wishes that she not be “freed.” But Britney Spears herself could request at any time that she be released from the conservatorship, and perhaps this is in the works right now.
The standard for the termination of a conservatorship in California is set forth in the California probate code:
1863. (a) The court shall hear and determine the matter according to the law and procedure relating to the trial of civil actions, including trial by jury if demanded by the conservatee. The conservator, the conservatee, or the spouse, or domestic partner, or any relative or friend of the conservatee or other interested person may appear and support or oppose the petition.
(b) If the court determines that the conservatorship is no longer required or that grounds for establishment of a conservatorship of the person or estate, or both, no longer exist, the court shall make this finding and shall enter judgment terminating the conservatorship accordingly.
(c) At the hearing, or thereafter on further notice and hearing, the conservator may be discharged and the bond given by the conservator may be exonerated upon the settlement and approval of the conservator’s final account by the court.
(d) Termination of conservatorship does not preclude a new proceeding for appointment of a conservator on the same or other grounds.
Interestingly, California law allows a jury to hear a petition to terminate a conservatorship if requested by the conservatee. It is hard to imagine a jury in Los Angeles County not wanting to free Britney if that is what she wants. The downside to having a trial, however, is that her full medical history could end up being made fully public. Whether a jury trial or not, the possibility of her full mental health situation being made public might in fact be the reason why the conservatorship continues to this day.