Britney Spears quietly pushed for years to end her conservatorship

The New York Times
New DelhiWritten By: Liz Day, Samantha Stark and Joe Coscarelli c.2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Jun 23, 2021, 02:39 PM IST
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Britney Spears expressed serious opposition to the conservatorship earlier and more often than had previously been known, and said that it restricted everything from whom she dated to the color of her kitchen cabinets.

In the years since a judge gave the father of Britney Spears broad control over her life and finances, concerned fans have questioned how the court could continue to deem her unable to protect and care for herself despite the fact that she was still a performing pop star.

Her father and others involved in the conservatorship maintained that it was a smooth-running machine that had rescued her from a low point and benefited Spears, and that she could move to end it whenever she wanted.

All the while, she stayed largely silent on the subject in public.

But now, confidential court records obtained by The New York Times reveal that Spears, 39, expressed serious opposition to the conservatorship earlier and more often than had previously been known, and said that it restricted everything from whom she dated to the color of her kitchen cabinets.

“She articulated she feels the conservatorship has become an oppressive and controlling tool against her,” a court investigator wrote in a 2016 report. The system had “too much control,” Spears said, according to the investigator’s account of the conversation. “Too, too much!”

Spears informed the investigator that she wanted the conservatorship terminated as soon as possible. “She is ‘sick of being taken advantage of’ and she said she is the one working and earning her money but everyone around her is on her payroll,” the investigator wrote.

In 2019, Spears told the court that she had felt forced by the conservatorship into a stay at a mental health facility and to perform against her will.

At the helm of the singer’s life and finances for most of that time was her once-estranged father, James P. Spears. James Spears, known as Jamie, was appointed conservator in 2008, shortly after Britney Spears was twice taken to a hospital by ambulance for involuntary psychiatric evaluations amid a series of public struggles and concerns around her mental health and substance abuse.

The newly obtained court records show that Britney Spears questioned his fitness for the role. As early as 2014, in a hearing closed to the public, her court-appointed lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, said she wanted to explore removing her father as conservator, citing his drinking, among other objections on a “shopping list” of grievances.

Last year, Ingham told the judge that Spears was “afraid of her father,” who remains a steward of her nearly $60 million fortune.

On Wednesday, the singer is scheduled to address the Los Angeles court directly — a rare move she requested on an expedited basis. It is unclear whether her remarks will be made in public, but her relationship with her father is expected to be a central topic.

Representatives for Jamie Spears, 68, declined to comment, citing the pending court hearing. But they have previously said the conservatorship was necessary to protect Britney Spears from exploitation and harm and that Jamie Spears has been a dutiful father, acting out of love for his daughter.

“Any time Britney wants to end her conservatorship, she can ask her lawyer to file a petition to terminate it; she has always had this right but in 13 years has never exercised it,” Vivian Lee Thoreen, a lawyer for Jamie Spears, said in a statement to People earlier this year. “Britney knows that her Daddy loves her, and that he will be there for her whenever and if she needs him, just as he always has been — conservatorship or not.”

Theirs has long been a difficult and dysfunctional relationship, according to the court records and interviews with many people who know the family. But that dynamic grew even more complicated after Jamie Spears — a recovering alcoholic who has faced accusations of physical and verbal abuse — took the lead in wrestling what he saw as his adult daughter’s demons.

Spears said her father was “obsessed” with her and wanted to control everything about her, according to the investigator’s report. She could not make friends without his approval.

Even as she earned millions from a successful Las Vegas residency, she said she was limited to a $2,000 weekly allowance, according to the records.

Any mistakes resulted in “very harsh” consequences, Spears added, according to the report. The conservatorship “comes with a lot of fear,” she said.

After consulting with Spears, her conservators and her doctors, the probate investigator concluded in 2016 that the conservatorship remained in Spears’ best interests based on her complex finances, susceptibility to undue influence and “intermittent” drug issues, though the report called for “a pathway to independence and the eventual termination of the conservatorship.”

The records provide only a snapshot of Spears’ sentiments and situation throughout a 13-year saga. Still, they present in great detail her discontent with the arrangement, in particular her concerns that her views about her father’s behavior were not being appropriately considered.

Experts say conservatorships should prioritize the wishes of the conservatee and help them regain their independence. The arrangements are supposed to be a last resort for people who cannot take care of their basic needs, such as those with significant disabilities or older people with dementia, yet Spears has been able to perform and profit for more than a decade.

Jamie and Britney

What the court records make clear is that the battle over the conservatorship is rooted in the family’s troubled history.

Debbie Sanders Cross, Jamie Spears’ first wife, who remains his friend, said his own “very difficult upbringing” had influenced his perspective. “I really think that’s why he’s trying to be so protective of Britney,” she said.

Jamie Spears had spent much of his life in Kentwood, a tiny Louisiana town where he was a star quarterback. His father, a boilermaker, was strict and demanding. “His daddy was so hard on him, but Jamie loved him and respected him,” Jamie Spears’ former football coach, Elton Shaw, recalled.

Jamie Spears’ youth was marked by tragedy: His mother died by suicide on the grave of her infant son when Jamie Spears was 13, according to the local paper. Jamie Spears survived a car accident that killed a football teammate four years later. At 22, he was arrested on drug and driving while intoxicated charges, according to a news report.

When Lynne Spears, his second wife and Britney’s mother, filed for divorce in 1980, she requested a temporary restraining order, citing a fear that he would “become angry when he is served with these papers” and harass or harm her, “especially if he has been drinking alcoholic beverages, as he has done in the past.”

The couple reconciled, but Jamie Spears’ instability haunted Spears’ childhood, the family has said. In her 2008 memoir, Lynne Spears recalled years of “verbal abuse, abandonment” and “erratic behavior.”

The family struggled financially, and in 1998, just months before the release of  Spears’ blockbuster first album, the Spearses filed for bankruptcy. The couple divorced in 2002.

Jamie Spears was present only intermittently during his daughter’s rise to pop stardom. In 2004, according to a court filing, he went to rehab for alcoholism at the urging of his daughter.

But by 2007, Spears was struggling herself. Humiliation by the press, stalking by the paparazzi, speculation around her mental health and substance abuse and a custody battle over her two young sons helped lead Spears to a breaking point.

Jamie Spears reappeared for what he and his ex-wife, Lynne Spears, viewed as an urgent rescue mission.

Along with his business manager, Louise M. Taylor, he prayed and fasted before he petitioned a judge for a temporary conservatorship of  Spears, Lynne Spears wrote in her memoir. Taylor later became a business manager of Britney Spears’ estate and an architect of her comeback.

The singer stressed that she did not want her father in charge, a lawyer she consulted at the time has said. But the judge overseeing the case, Reva Goetz, deemed Spears incapable of hiring her own counsel and appointed Ingham, the lawyer who represents her to this day.

In February 2008, according to court records, Goetz deemed Jamie Spears “a suitable and qualified person” and granted him broad control over his daughter’s daily life and, alongside a co-conservator, her finances.

“Everything he does, he feels is in the best interest of his daughters and his family,” said Mitch Covington, a friend of Jamie Spears’.

Spears quickly went back to work. Within a year of being deemed unable to care for herself, she guest-starred on national television, released a No. 1 album and was preparing to embark on a run of almost 100 shows around the world.

Aside from his salary as conservator — now about $16,000 per month, plus $2,000 a month for office space rent — Jamie Spears was approved by the court to receive a percentage of various deals signed for his daughter.

In 2011, he received a 2.95% commission for his work on  Spears’ successful Femme Fatale tour. And in 2014, he was granted 1.5% of gross revenues from the performances and merchandising tied to her Las Vegas residency, “Piece of Me,” which went on to earn a reported $138 million across nearly 250 shows.

The dual role of looking out for Britney Spears’ best interests as conservator and reaping more profits each time she performed was “fraught with conflict,” according to W. Michael Hensley, a probate lawyer in California who works as a fee examination expert and is not involved in the Spears case.

Questioning her father’s role

Confidential court records reveal  Spears’ concerns that her father was hardly the person to be setting, and enforcing, the rules that governed her life.

Spears’ first tour under the conservatorship, The Circus Starring Britney Spears, was designed to be a dry one, with cast and crew forbidden from drinking alcohol — or even energy drinks — around her, according to three people who worked on it.

During this period, a former nanny and housekeeper for  Spears claimed Jamie Spears engaged in “verbal abuse, tirades, inappropriate behavior and alcoholic relapses,” according to a legal letter sent in 2010 that threatened a lawsuit.

In 2014, Ingham told the court that Spears believed her father was drinking, according to a transcript of the closed hearing. Lawyers representing the conservatorship responded that Jamie Spears had voluntarily submitted to regularly scheduled alcohol tests and never failed. Jamie Spears’ lawyer said he took one random test, but refused to take any more, calling the request inappropriate.

Ingham also raised Spears’ urgent desire to terminate the conservatorship altogether. She had even mentioned the possibility of changing her lifestyle and retiring, but believed the conservatorship precluded that, he said, according to a transcript.

The judge said that she would consider ending the conservatorship if the singer established a healthy relationship with a therapist and returned one year’s worth of clean drug tests. But the judge would not guarantee it.

Behind closed doors

In 2016, Spears released her ninth studio album and performed more than 50 times in Las Vegas. But in private, she was again protesting the conservatorship, according to a report written by a probate investigator. (In California conservatorships, a court investigator conducts periodic reviews for the judge.)

Spears told the investigator that she was “very angry” about the way her life was being run, and described security around her at all times. She was also being tested for drugs numerous times weekly, and her credit card was held by her security team or assistant and used at their discretion, the report said.

Spears wanted to make cosmetic changes to her home, like re-staining her kitchen cabinets, she told the investigator, but was forbidden by her father, who told her too much money was being spent.

The public image of Spears’ life gave little sense of the turmoil she was expressing privately. An Instagram feed presented her as playfully approachable, and a new, lucrative Las Vegas show was set to begin in February 2019.

Then, a month before the opening, Spears announced an “indefinite work hiatus,” canceling the residency. Jamie Spears had “almost died” after suffering a ruptured colon, according to a statement, which noted the pair’s “very special relationship.”

That spring, Spears appeared at a closed-door hearing and read a statement. According to a transcript, she asserted that she had been forced into a mental health facility against her will on exaggerated grounds, which she viewed as punishment for standing up for herself and making an objection during a rehearsal.

By September 2020, a flurry of courtroom activity indicated publicly that something had shifted. Ingham filed court papers saying that Spears “is vehemently opposed to this effort by her father to keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret.”

At a public court hearing in November, Spears’ mother moved to support the removal of Jamie Spears as conservator. Through a lawyer, she called the father-daughter relationship “toxic” and said it was “time to start fresh,” adding that Jamie Spears had referred to his daughter as “a racehorse who has to be handled like one.”

That day, Judge Brenda Penny, who had replaced Goetz on the case, declined a request from Ingham to suspend Jamie Spears immediately, but left the door open to consider removing him in the future. Penny approved a wealth management firm to serve as co-conservator of the estate alongside Jamie Spears.

Ingham has not filed a petition to remove Jamie Spears permanently.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.