/Judge Ends Britney Spearss Conservatorship: Live Updates – The New York Times

Judge Ends Britney Spearss Conservatorship: Live Updates – The New York Times


ImageBritney Spears performing in 2004.
Credit…Getty Images

A Los Angeles judge ruled Friday that conservatorship that has overseen Britney Spears’s life and finances for nearly 14 years should be terminated immediately.

The ruling by Judge Brenda Penny of Los Angeles Superior Court ended an arrangement that Ms. Spears had complained of bitterly, and which her fans had rallied against.

In June, Ms. Spears, 39, told the court that the arrangement, which stripped her of control in nearly every aspect of her life, had traumatized and exploited her, and asked for it to end without her having to undergo additional mental evaluations.

On Friday, Judge Penny agreed.

“The conservatorship of the person and estate of Britney Jean Spears is no longer required,” she said.

Judge Penny found that there was “no need for a capacity declaration” of Ms. Spears, noting that it had been a voluntary conservatorship.

The judge said Ms. Spears’s current estate conservator would continue working to settle ongoing financial concerns related to the case. John Zabel, the certified public accountant who took over the estate in September, would retain power to execute estate planning and transfer outside assets into an existing trust for Ms. Spears, she said.

The conservatorship has dominated the singer’s life for more than 14 years. It began in 2008, when James P. Spears, Ms. Spears’s father, who is known as Jamie, first petitioned the court for authority over his adult daughter’s life and finances, citing her very public mental health struggles and possible substance abuse. The temporary guardianship was made permanent by the end of the year.

Since then, the conservatorship has entered into professional contracts on behalf of the pop star, dictated her travel and logged her every purchase down to a drink from Starbucks. It also drew questions from Ms. Spears’s increasingly invested fans and outside observers, who asked why an active global celebrity and musician was in an arrangement typically reserved for people who cannot feed, clothe or shelter themselves.

In June, when Ms. Spears made her first extended public comments on the conservatorship in court, she said its authority went too far, claiming that those in charge forced her to take medication, work against her will and use a birth control device. She called for them to be investigated and jailed, pointing to Mr. Spears, 69, as “the one who approved all of it.”

Behind the scenes, Ms. Spears had routinely bristled at the strictures of the arrangement, according to reporting and confidential documents obtained by The New York Times. In 2019, she had begun seeking substantial changes to the conservatorship, when she announced “an indefinite work hiatus.”

In her comments at the June hearing, Ms. Spears said she did not know that she could file to end the arrangement altogether; her lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, soon resigned, and Judge Penny allowed Ms. Spears to select her new lawyer, Mathew S. Rosengart, the next month.

Ms. Spears’s father subsequently called for the conservatorship to be ended. His lawyer wrote in a recent status report that “Jamie believes that the Conservatorship should end, immediately.” The court suspended Mr. Spears as conservator of Ms. Spears’s nearly $60 million estate on Sept. 29.

Mr. Rosengart has said he will push for Mr. Spears and the estate’s former business manager, Tri Star Sports & Entertainment Group, to be investigated for financial mismanagement.

Julia Jacobs reported from Los Angeles.

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Hundreds of #FreeBritney supporters cheered and danced outside Los Angeles Superior Court.CreditCredit…Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

The ruling Friday that Britney Spears’s conservatorship would end immediately was announced from a stage in front of the Stanley Mosk courthouse and the crowd of more than 200 people erupted in cheers as confetti flew and the pop star’s music blared.

Some fans hugged. Some cried in joy.

Natalie Angiula, a musician from Los Angeles, said Ms. Spears had inspired her since she was a child and that she was thrilled for the singer.

“I hope her life now can become what she dreams it to be,” Ms. Angiula said. “It’s unbelievable to see what the internet has been able to do to help her case, and the community that has been built around this movement.”

When Ms. Spears’s lawyer, Mathew S. Rosengart, walked out of the courtroom and toward the crowd, fans began chanting his name and activists nudged a performer entertaining the audience offstage, giving the lawyer the microphone.

“I’m proud of her because not only did she shine a light on this conservatorship, she shined a light on conservatorships from California to New York,” he said. “If this happened to Britney, it can happen to anybody.”

When someone from the crowd asked whether Ms. Spears would perform again, Mr. Rosengart replied, “Whether she performs again is up to Britney Spears.”

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Mathew Rosengart said that “what’s next for Britney — and this is the first time that this could be said for about a decade — is up to one person: Britney” after a judge in Los Angeles ended her conservatorship.CreditCredit…Mike Blake/Reuters

There had been a limited number of seats for fans and other members of the public in the brief hearing. Judge Brenda Penny read her ruling in an even tone, and there was no vocal reaction from the audience, which had been warned not to make any noise at the start of the proceedings.

The mood outside the courtroom was not as restrained.

After the ruling was announced, Angelique Fawcette, an activist who has helped organize rallies for the #FreeBritney movement, danced onstage and hugged people surrounding her as the fans outside learned of the decision.

“I’m elated,” Ms. Fawcette said. “Britney has been freed, and her freedom sets a precedent for all other conservatorships across the nation. Her conservatorship and court case will be forced to be looked at by every judge and entity reviewing conservatorships. I’m happy for Britney, but I’m more happy for our nation.”

Credit…Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Several experts said Friday that while they personally supported ending Britney Spears’s conservatorship, they thought it unusual that the Los Angeles probate court did so without requiring the pop star to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

“I’m surprised,” said Robert Dinerstein, a disability rights law professor at American University. He said that persuading judges to overturn a conservatorship in the first place is unusual.

But when they do, he said, they typically require a psychological evaluation.

“Within the relatively rare number of cases where a conservatorship is terminated, it’s even more unusual to do that without proof they had capacity,” Professor Dinerstein said.

Judge Brenda Penny, who terminated the conservatorship, said that further psychological assessments of Ms. Spears were unnecessary, because the conservatorship was technically voluntary.

Victoria Haneman, a trusts and estates law professor at Creighton University, said California probate code does not require a mental health evaluation for the conservatorship to be terminated. She said the underlying diagnosis explaining why Ms. Spears was put in conservatorship is unavailable because the record is sealed, making it tough to determine what sort of evaluation might have been required to show that the guardianship was no longer needed.

Nevertheless, mental issues seemed to be a part of the reason, and so she had expected that an assessment would have been required to answer whether those problems were now in the past, she said.

“I am extremely surprised that this conservatorship is ended without an evaluation,” she said.

The experts stressed that they were not commenting on Ms. Spears’s mental health status, of which they are not informed — only on the process as they have experienced it.

Typically in deciding whether to end a conservatorship, the experts said, a judge will consider whether the conservatee has regained “capacity,” using a psychological assessment and other factors to determine cognitive ability and decision making.

This includes whether they can weigh risks and benefits regarding things like medical care, marriage and contracts. The person’s ability to feed, clothe and shelter themselves may also be examined.

The purpose of an assessment is to determine whether the conditions that led to the imposition of the conservatorship in the first place have now stabilized or are in the past.

Ms. Spears’s case has been considered extremely unusual because while viewed as unable to care for herself by the court, she continued to work extensively as a performing musician and global celebrity, bringing in millions of dollars.

The singer herself had insisted that the arrangement end without her having to undergo an additional mental evaluation, and her lawyer had noted that lawyers for her father had agreed that no mental or psychological evaluation was required under California probate court.

Zoe Brennan-Kohn, a disabilities rights lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said though typically some kind of psychological evaluation is part of the process of ending a conservatorship, it “makes sense that there would be no evaluation because everyone agreed.”

“If everyone in the picture thinks this person does not need to be in this invasive situation,” she said, “we don’t want courts to be second-guessing that. Everyone said you should end this. I think it’s appropriate that the judge said, ‘Let’s end this.’”

Credit…Valerie Macon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When Britney Spears addressed the court in June, she said she had been drugged, forced to work and prevented from removing her birth control device in recent years while under the conservatorship. She called for those overseeing it to be investigated and jailed, pointing to her father, James P. Spears, as “the one who approved all of it.”

“Controlling Britney Spears,” a documentary on the subject by The New York Times, also revealed that a surveillance apparatus monitored the singer’s communications and secretly captured audio recordings from her bedroom, according to a former employee of the security firm that was hired to protect her.

Ms. Spears’s lawyer, Mathew S. Rosengart, has since added to those accusations the prospect of financial mismanagement by Mr. Spears and the estate’s former business manager, Tri Star Sports & Entertainment Group, issuing subpoenas for sworn depositions and extensive records, including payments and communication between the parties, as well as the security firm behind the monitoring of Ms. Spears.

Mr. Rosengart has argued that Mr. Spears’s sudden desire to end the conservatorship after years of defending its necessity was tied to hopes that he could avoid legal discovery and being deposed under oath.

In the latest filings, Mr. Spears’s lawyers wrote that their client “has nothing to hide regarding his administration of Britney’s estate and will therefore hide nothing.”

They added that Mr. Spears “supports, indeed encourages, a full and transparent examination of the Conservatorship and has every confidence that said review will put to rest the outlandish, scurrilous and irresponsible speculation that has accompanied the media circus surrounding these proceedings.” The filings called Mr. Spears’s desire to immediately end the conservatorship “unconditional,” arguing that the transferring of records and his cooperation with Ms. Spears and her lawyers “will occur regardless.”

Lawyers for Tri Star, in their own filing, denied that the company’s employees had any control over Ms. Spears’s medical treatment or security protocols, including hidden electronic surveillance. They argued that the company’s financial dealings with the estate were approved by the court before the firm’s resignation from the conservatorship last year.

Even though Judge Brenda Penny decided to end the conservatorship on Friday, it is likely that these issues will remain to be addressed at subsequent hearings.

Though Britney Spears’s conservatorship has now been terminated, another looming issue in front of Judge Brenda Penny is the question of the legal bills being presented to the court by the many lawyers who have been involved in the proceedings.

The billing issue became more contentious after Ms. Spears said in court that her father, who has been suspended as her conservator, and others involved in her care “should be in jail” for how they treated her. Ms. Spears’s lawyer, Mathew S. Rosengart — whom she was granted the right to hire in July — has made a formal objection to a request by her father, James P. Spears, for approval of his legal fees, accusing Mr. Spears in court papers of billing his daughter for “outrageous and exorbitant” fees related to “media matters,” among other grievances.

“It is clear this work was not to benefit the Conservatee but rather a shameful attempt to redeem the reputation of outgoing conservator James Spears,” Mr. Rosengart wrote in the court filing.

One bill from a law firm hired by Mr. Spears, Holland and Knight, charged more than $890,000 for about four months of work. (The law firm no longer represents him following his suspension.)

Now Mr. Spears is represented by Alex Weingarten and Eric Bakewell, who wrote in a recent court filing that he continues to support the termination of the conservatorship and has “nothing to hide regarding his administration of Britney’s estate.”

Others seeking payment include Samuel D. Ingham III, Ms. Spears’s former court-appointed lawyer; Loeb & Loeb, a law firm hired last year at Mr. Ingham’s request when Ms. Spears was seeking to reduce her father’s influence over her finances; and Jodi Montgomery, a temporary conservator overseeing Ms. Spears’s personal matters, and her lawyers.

More recently, the singer’s mother, Lynne Spears, asked for court approval for payment of her own legal fees. In a court filing from earlier this month, a lawyer for Lynne Spears wrote that their legal team’s efforts, starting in 2019, to reduce Mr. Spears’s involvement in the conservatorship had laid the groundwork for his eventual suspension. The lawyers from two firms have asked for about $663,000 from Ms. Spears’s estate.

Mr. Rosengart also asked the court last month to approve a plan for paying him and his team, though it did not specify the fee total it envisioned. Judge Penny granted his request.

Judge Penny has scheduled the billing requests to be considered in a hearing on Dec. 8.

Credit…Rich Fury/Invision, via Associated Press

When Britney Spears broke her public silence on the conservatorship in June and asked the court to end it, she told the judge that at times she had been drugged, compelled to work against her will and prevented from removing her birth control device.

“It’s embarrassing and demoralizing what I’ve been through, and that’s the main reason I’ve never said it openly,” Ms. Spears said in an emotional 23-minute address to the courtroom by phone. “And mainly, I didn’t want to say it openly, because I honestly don’t think anyone would believe me.”

She later added: “And maybe I’m wrong and that’s why I didn’t want to say any of this to anybody, to the public, because I thought people would make fun of me or laugh at me and say, ‘She’s lying, she’s got everything; she’s Britney Spears.’ I’m not lying. I just want my life back and it’s been 13 years and it’s enough.”

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