This article was originally featured in our All Rise newsletter on July 26, 2021.
Conservatorship and guardianship law was in the spotlight in July following an appearance pop singer Britney Spears made in Los Angeles Superior Court, when she successfully convinced a judge to let her select her own attorney. The judge’s approval was noteworthy in that it marked the first time in nearly 13 years the singer could legally make that decision.
Spears hired Mathew S. Rosengart, a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig and former federal prosecutor who is known for handling matters for high-profile celebrities like director Steven Spielberg. While the choice of lawyer projects a level of prestige, the action itself can be considered a positive step for the multiplatinum-selling artist. Spears is attempting to resume control of her finances, career and private life after her claims that her father and guardian, Jamie Spears has committed acts of “conservatorship abuse.” Mr. Spears’ conservatorship was a temporary measure following his daughter’s unusual public behavior in 2008, which was later made permanent in October 2008 following a psychiatric evaluation and concerns of substance abuse.
Spears’ net worth is reportedly $60 million and court documents indicate that Spears has had to pay her father $16,000 per month – or $2.4 million in total – since February 2009 as her conservator. According to Yahoo! News, Ms. Spears detailed to major media outlets how her father controlled everything from her diet to intense work weeks. The singer reportedly said she's fearful of him, and Rosengart publicly indicated he may file a petition to remove Jamie Spears from the conservatorship.
Conservatorship was meant to assist people who need help with personal care or management of finances due to a lack of capacity, often caused by dementia. But when it is applied to people who do not meet the traditional criteria, Doane & Doane, P.A. founder Rebecca G. Doane said it can become a grayer legal area.
Based in North Palm Beach, Florida, Ms. Doane has more than 30 years of experience handling conservatorship matters and has been annually recognized by Best Lawyers since 2017 for her specific work in guardianships and elder law. Though not involved in the Spears case, she said based on available information, certain procedures with regard to a restoration of rights were missed or omitted during the tenure of the conservatorship.
“When you have a guardianship or conservatorship of the person and the property, there is usually a requirement to fill out an annual plan which reports to the court if the ward’s rights should be restored,” Doane said. “Part of that plan usually consists of the conservator of the person contemplating–with all of the facts and the activity of the past year–whether or not it's time to pursue a partial or an entire restoration of the ward’s rights. So on an annual basis, that should be reviewed.”
Not Yet A Law
While there is no federal precedent for conservatorship–it is left to the states–Spears’ ever-enthusiastic fanbase is making noise to help her, even on Capitol Hill.
On July 20, Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist of Florida and Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina unveiled their Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation Act, the FREE Act, during a virtual news conference. Inspired by the #FreeBritney movement championed by fans on social media, the FREE Act would allow a person under a legal guardianship or conservatorship the right to petition the court to have their court-appointed guardian replaced with a public guardian.
While it provides a glimmer of hope for Spears and thousands of others in similar situations, Doane said the proposed legislation is a “baby step” toward justice.
“This would still give the courts control over who is selected as the public guardian on the case,” she said. “True reform would be programs to help with mental health cases–which are always the trickiest of all guardianships as it relates to the person’s rights.”
Rebecca G. Doane founded Doane & Doane, P.A.She has been recognized by Best Lawyers since 2017 in Elder Law and her practice is focused on estate planning, guardianship, probate administration and taxation.
Justin Smulison is a professional writer who regularly contributes to Best Lawyers. He was previously a reporter for the New York Law Journal and also led content and production for the Custom Projects Group at ALM Media. In addition to his various credited and uncredited writing projects, he has developed global audiences hosting and producing podcasts and audio interviews for professional organizations and music sites.