While the country was anxiously awaiting election results, Britney Spears was trying to get her life back. The pop star, 38, wants her dad and conservator out of her business. Now.
Her situation illustrates some of the challenges with arrangements to protect people from themselves. Especially while they have capacity to make decisions.
You probably know that Britney has been under a California conservatorship since 2008. She went through a bit of a rough patch and was involuntarily hospitalized for mental health treatment. All court filings are secret, but details tend to seep out.
Removal of Jamie Is Not a New Idea
Dad Jamie has served as conservator, except for a few times when he stepped away for health or personal reasons. This past summer, after one of those breaks, Britney asked that her dad not return to the role and that Bessemer Trust, a well-known company that manages billions of dollars of assets, come aboard. Jamie agreed to serve as co-conservator with Bessemer, and that’s the current arrangement.
On Nov. 3, Spears’ attorney filed a request to suspend Jaime as soon as possible, pending the filing of a petition to remove and get him out of her business for good. If Jamie stays, Britney will “suffer loss and injury,” the filing reportedly says.
It’s a ‘Voluntary’ Arrangement
Fans and observers have wondered for years why someone who is seemingly capable is under conservatorship at all. Recent filings indicate that Britney is not incapacitated at all and that the conservatorship is “voluntary.”
A “voluntary conservatorship” is, in fact, sanctioned by statute in California. The statute reads: “. . . a conservator of the person or estate, or both, may be appointed for a person who voluntarily requests the appointment and who, to the satisfaction of the court, establishes good cause for the appointment.” The appointment, however, is subject to the following limitation: “No conservatorship . . . shall be granted by the court unless the court makes an express finding that the granting of the conservatorship is the least restrictive alternative needed for the protection of the conservatee.”
Britney, it seems, needs less restriction than previously. Court filings have explained that she “continues to move in the direction of greater autonomy,” and reports say Jamie has been unhappy with Britney’s medical decisions, suggesting he does not have control of her medical care. For her finances, she has said she prefers Bessemer so she can “work with a corporate fiduciary who can offer both a physical office and a team of independent financial professionals rather than a single individual, hand-picked by her father.”
Incident Sparked Effort to Get Him Out of Her Business
The co-conservatorship was designed as a team – Jamie, Bessemer, and Britney. But Jamie went rogue. When Britney’s business manager resigned suddenly, Jamie hired a replacement without consulting with Britney or sharing the contract details or fees. Jamie acting unilaterally, it seems, was not part of the plan. That sparked the desire to force him out of her business.
Will Jamie have to go? Tough to tell. The person under protection can’t fire a conservator at will; only the court can remove. In California, removal comes down to whether it would be in the best interests of the protected person. That standard is common to conservatorships in other states including Arizona.
Unusual But in Some Ways Not So Much
Though Britney’s conservatorship is very unusual, because we at Fleming & Curti serve as conservator, we recognize many aspects the situation it that are common to more ordinary protective proceedings. Among them:
- A family member often is not the best choice. In a significant number of cases where Fleming & Curti serves as conservator, the arrangement arose as a result of or in anticipation of family discord. Family members bring their histories and expectations, disappointments and aspirations along with their duties. A professional fiduciary neutral, which what Britney has said she wants. The court is likely to respect that because it makes sense.
- Fiduciary relationships require adherence to rules. A conservator is charged with maximizing the independence of the protected person. Being a conservator carries with it the decision-making power of a parent, but it requires respect for the protected person’s desires and capabilities. That means Jamie Spears has a duty to involve Britney in decisions to the extent she is able. Did that include hiring the manger? Probably. Is the breach serious enough to get Jamie bounced? Probably not.
And Then There’s . . .
- “Voluntary” conservatorships are tricky. If the person under protection is capable of making decisions and conservator has to respect that, who is the ultimate decider? Probably the person under protection. What then is the purpose of the arrangement? It’s murky. In Brittney’s case, if she trusts Bessemer, why shouldn’t she put all her money in a trust and name Bessemer the trustee? She could avoid court interference and, if she fears she might have mental health issues in the future and endanger her estate, she can build in protections such as irrevocability, trust protectors, mandatory accountings to trusted advisers, and/or special trustees for special circumstances.
- Sometimes, “court oversight” is a good thing. For people who are accustomed to the court’s involvement, leaving it behind can be intimidating and scary. In our experience as conservators for minors, when a minor turns 18 and legally can take over their own affairs, they often want to keep both the conservator and court oversight. It may be that Britney never really trusted her father. Having the court involved might give her a sense of security. Britney became very famous and very rich at a young age. She probably doesn’t completely trust anyone. So the court — attorneys, judges, mandatory filings, hearings, etc. – may provide a structure she can rely on.
Will Britney be successful in getting her dad out of her business? Maybe there’s room for compromise. One idea: Jamie could have access to information and be able to give input, but Bessemer and Britney make the final call. Then maybe father and daughter could rebuild some trust.