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Britney Spears’s conservatorship is terminated after 13 years

Britney Spears attends the GLAAD Media Awards in April 2018. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
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LOS ANGELES — A California judge on Friday ended the conservatorship over Britney Spears, a 13-year arrangement that had granted her father and others almost total control over the pop singer’s personal life and finances. Judge Brenda Penny’s decision means Spears will regain control of her day-to-day life effective immediately, as well as her multimillion-dollar estate.

The conservatorship cast a pall over the life and career of the onetime chart-topper, who shot to stardom when she was a teenager. Spears, who turns 40 next month, was still a top draw when, as a 26-year-old parent of two small children, she was placed under a conservatorship in 2008 following a spate of erratic public behavior. The situation increasingly attracted widespread, heated criticism — including from Spears herself, who began speaking out earlier this year and referred to the long-term legal arrangement as “abusive.”

Her father, Jamie Spears, was the conservator of both Spears’s estate and her person, the latter encompassing control over her daily activities, social life and medical treatments. He remained a permanent part of the arrangement until earlier this year.

Jamie and his wife, Lynne, appeared in court Friday. Their daughter did not. Supporters of the #FreeBritney campaign cheered for the singer’s attorney, Mathew Rosengart, as he walked toward the courtroom, where he later told Penny that “everyone agrees that the conservatorship, as a practical matter, should end today.”

Following the decision, Rosengart addressed gathered news media outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, where he was periodically drowned out by #FreeBritney supporters whooping, blasting music and celebrating with purple confetti.

“What’s next for Britney, and this is the first time this could be said for about a decade, is up to one person: Britney,” he said.

Rosengart also noted that Spears “helped shine a light on conservatorships and guardianships from coast to coast.” While the move to put Spears, a Grammy-winning, tabloid-favorite star in this position — in which vulnerable adults are cared for by guardians (or “conservators”) who assume control of their finances and sometimes their daily lives — was surprising to many in 2008, the conditions and details of the legal arrangements had been largely kept out of public view until this year.

The attorney said Spears’s decision to speak out “took a tremendous amount of insight, courage and grace.”

Britney Spears has been in a conservatorship for over a decade. (Video: Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

A documentary on FX and Hulu, “The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears,” raised questions when it was released in February about the origins of Spears’s conservatorship and the ethics of an adult capable of holding a job being involved in an arrangement most often applied in situations where an elderly or developmentally disabled person is at risk of being taken advantage of financially. The special, which also noted that the court system had denied Spears’s requests to retain her own lawyer, quickly attracted the attention of viewers across the globe.

Numerous documentaries have come out since, unearthing additional, disturbing details about the conservatorship. Documents in Netflix’s “Britney vs. Spears,” for instance, made plain that Jamie had the power to cancel his daughter’s credit cards and to lease a car for himself using money from her estate. A former employee of a security firm hired by Jamie alleged in the second “New York Times Presents” documentary that Spears’s devices had been surveilled and her bedroom bugged.

Britney Spears and the trauma of being young, female and famous in the ’90s

Over the summer, Spears herself made the rare move of speaking at a court hearing on her own behalf. On June 23, in a lengthy statement, she described being drugged, forced to perform while ill, made to go to therapy frequently in highly visible public places and being forbidden from going places alone or with her boyfriend. She also described not being allowed to make an appointment for the removal of an IUD (or birth-control device), despite wanting to get married and have another child.

“It’s embarrassing, and it’s demoralizing,” Spears said during that hearing. “I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive.” Spears, who said she hadn’t learned until recently that she could petition to end her conservatorship, asked the judge to consider terminating the arrangement.

Spears’s court-appointed attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, resigned soon afterward, and Penny granted Spears permission to retain a lawyer of her own choosing as his replacement. Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor, signed on as Spears’s lawyer in July and promptly filed for the suspension of Jamie, 69, as Spears’s conservator.

Lawyers for Jamie formally requested a termination of the arrangement entirely in early September, but on Sept. 29, the judge kept the arrangement in place and officially suspended Jamie; Zabel was appointed to take his place as conservator of the estate. As of Friday, Rosengart requested Zabel retain two powers in his temporary position, including executing some documents (such as for Spears’s trust) and transferring assets. The next hearing date is scheduled for Dec. 8.

Rosengart told reporters that Jamie’s team has “not responded to one document request” and “have refused thus far to appear for deposition under oath.” The attorney said Spears’s business manager, Tri Star Sports and Entertainment, has been similarly silent. He said they wouldn’t willingly cooperate with Spears and divulge information the singer requested, and Tri Star had filed motions to dismiss subpoenas.

“The most notable question that we’ve asked the company,” Rosengart said, “is a very simple question: How much money did you take from the estate?”

On Twitter, Spears shared a video of confetti popping over jovial #FreeBritney supporters outside the courthouse, writing, “Good God I love my fans so much it’s crazy !!! I think I’m gonna cry the rest of the day !!!! Best day ever … praise the Lord … can I get an Amen ???? #FreedBritney.”

Josh Ryan, a 27-year-old Hollywood resident sporting a #FreeBritney shirt, told The Washington Post that “our system doesn’t help people as much as it should. So thank God it happened today.”

Adam McIntyre, a 19-year-old YouTube personality who flew in from Northern Ireland to join the gathering, described the energy among Spears’s fans as “electrifying.”

“Not every artist can be silent for a long time on social media and not do tours, not do music, and their fans show out like this and are rallying, showing up here month after month,” he said. “Today, the energy is so beyond anything you’ll ever expect. Everyone is just feeling the love and so happy for her.”

What to know about Britney Spears’s court battle over her conservatorship

In recent months, while Spears’s fans remained firmly in her corner, her relationships with her family members became further strained. Lynne, 66, requested more than $650,000 from Spears in attorney-related fees in October; Spears accused her mother in a since-deleted Instagram post a day later of being the instigator of the conservatorship, saying Lynne “secretly ruined my life.” Spears’s sister, Jamie Lynn, 30, has also faced backlash from fans for not publicly advocating for her sister’s release from the conservatorship. Spears herself addressed the issue in an Instagram caption in which she also explained why she had quit performing. “I don’t like that my sister showed up at an awards show and performed MY SONGS to remixes,” she said. “My so-called support system hurt me deeply !!!!”

After appearances on “Star Search” and “The All-New Mickey Mouse Club,” Spears’s staggeringly successful music career began in earnest when she was 16, when her debut single “ … Baby One More Time” became a worldwide sensation in 1998. She went on to become one of the top-selling artists of the 21st century with nearly 100 million records sold, six No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 and a bevy of awards. Her daring and adventurous performances (dancing with a live snake and a kiss with Madonna among them) garnered almost as much talk as the songs themselves. Spears’s four-year, 250-show residency at Las Vegas’s Planet Hollywood, which she ended in 2019, broke box-office records. Meanwhile, her personal life — including her relationships with former NSYNC member Justin Timberlake, her marriage to dancer Kevin Federline and her crew of celebrity friends — was a mainstay of tabloids and gossip magazines throughout the 2000s.

Spears’s impact on American society goes beyond her cultural contributions; conservatorships in the country could change as a result of her legal proceedings. Politicians running the gamut from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called for an end to Spears’s conservatorship and better oversight over the American guardianship and conservatorship systems. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R.-Fla.) even attended a rally organized by the #FreeBritney movement in July, giving a memorable speech to rallygoers.

And over the summer, Reps. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) and Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) introduced the Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation Act, or FREE Act, which aimed to give conservatees the right to petition for their court-appointed guardians to be replaced with public guardians. The FREE Act would not only free Spears, Crist said in a statement, but also “the countless number of seniors and persons with disabilities being abused and exploited by the broken system.”

Across the United States, too, the Spears case has “opened eyes and ears that had been closed about the issues with guardianship and conservatorship in this country,” said Rick Black, the founder and executive director of the Center for Estate Administration Reform (CEAR). Black added that 2021 has been the best year for the conservatorship-reform movement in decades.

The public is learning that “if it can happen to someone as bright, vibrant and capable and successful and as wealthy as Britney,” he said, “the American public needs to understand — it can happen to anyone. And in fact it does.”

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