An unstoppable force and global pop icon in the late 1990s and 2000s, the trappings of fame have hit singer Britney Spears hard in the years since. Crippling anxiety combined with punishing, sordid attention thrust upon her by paparazzi and others fueled much publicized breakdowns in 2007 and 2008. That then saw her placed in a legal conservatorship in which for more than a decade, her father, Jamie, controlled her financial and personal affairs, as well as her career and medical treatment.
With Spears on Wednesday set to appear virtually at a court hearing discussing her conservatorship, today’s Daily Dose delves into the ins and outs of that legal concept, the prominent international cases in which women have faced similar restrictions on their autonomy and the important docs to watch to help you become better informed.
Reporters Liam Jamieson and Isabelle Lee
1. Conservatorship Commencement
Britney Spears’ infamous breakdown after police found her in her home apparently under the influence of an unknown substance in January 2008 swiftly led to a Los Angeles court instituting a legal conservatorship. The procedure placed the singer’s finances, medical well-being and estate under the authority of her conservators: her father and, for a time, a co-conservator and attorney named Andrew Wallet. Spears found herself stripped of all but the most basic autonomy.
For a decade, the singer dived back into her work through concert tours, reality TV and entrepreneurial endeavors. All the while, however, there was little word of her conservatorship and the extent to which she enjoyed control over her own life. By 2019, a fan movement dubbed #FreeBritney, fueled by concern over how much control others had over her life, was gaining traction on the streets and online. Questions around Spears’ conservatorship accrued renewed attention in February following the release of a New York Times documentary titled Framing Britney Spears, which examines the singer’s life and ongoing legal fight against her father for control over her estate and finances.
3. Just a Conspiracy?
Despite pleas from fans to allow Britney to control her own affairs (she is believed to be worth close to $60 million, though has little access to her fortune), Jamie Spears says the conservatorship is not what people are making it out to be, claiming that the #FreeBritney movement is “a joke” and that its followers are “conspiracy theorists.” With the conservatorship overseen by the California court system, some close to Britney have argued that the conservatorship may have helped her. Two years ago, the singer’s manager Larry Rudolph stated that “the conservatorship is not a jail. It helps Britney make business decisions and manage her life in ways she can’t do on her own right now.”
4. Court Appearance on Wednesday
In March, Spears and her legal team asked for Jamie to be removed as her conservator (her father stepped down from conservatorship of her personal affairs after falling ill in 2019 but maintains partial control over her financial affairs). The following month, the singer made a request to speak for herself at the next court hearing on the issue, which takes place on Wednesday. The pop world will be waiting with bated breath: Having been all but silent in public about her conservatorship, her much-anticipated comments will likely give the world — not least her army of ardent fans — a glimpse into a life shrouded in controversy and mystery.
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A conservatorship is a legal arrangement where a judge can appoint a guardian to be in complete control of an individual’s wealth, assets or person. This can include their finances, but also health decisions, visitation and other day-to-day decisions. The arrangement is used mainly by caretakers for adults with severe disabilities or elderly people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In 2017, about 1.5 million adults in America were under conservatorship.
2. A Force for Good?
According to lawyer and pop culture commentator Emily Baker, conservatorships can be necessary or beneficial to “protect the conservatee from getting taken advantage of,” she tells OZY. But, when there are “large amounts of money,” there is always the “opportunity for people who have their own financial interests at mind.”
3. Public Figures and Conservatorships
According to Baker, “conservatorships should only be used when someone is actually vulnerable due to medical incapacity. Otherwise, power of attorney, business managers, and financial managers are a very good option for public figures to protect their assets and manage their careers.” But conservatorships tend to draw attention when applied to people in the public eye, such as in the case of Spears and actor Amanda Bynes.
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In a country notorious for its lack of gender equality, women in Saudi Arabia are subject to a different form of conservatorship — from birth until death. The Middle Eastern state’s male guardianship system is, according to rights groups and many Saudi women alike, the country’s biggest impediment to women’s rights. Whether it be a husband, father, son or brother, women need permission from their designated male guardian to do a wide range of activities, including getting married, traveling, working and accessing health care. Women’s rights activists have called on the government to abolish its guardianship system, and while some reforms have been made in the past decade, most notably with women’s suffrage and inclusion in politics, the guardianship system remains a key roadblock to any semblance of gender equality.
2. United Arab Emirates
Although Saudi Arabia’s neighbor ranks higher in terms of gender equality than many of its regional counterparts, among the modern and luxurious skyscrapers of Dubai there exists a suppressive male guardianship system. Dubai’s ruling family drew international scrutiny in 2018 after the prime minister’s daughter, Princess Latifa, was detained after she was found on board a boat off the coast of India while attempting to flee her family’s oppressive grip.
In another petrostate that supports a male guardianship system, activists have boldly taken to social media to criticize Qatari authorities — a rare occurrence in a country where policies are rarely questioned. The Twitter account @QatarFem — which condemned the guardianship laws and also discussed topics like domestic abuse — was short-lived, effectively shut down before it could reach 2,000 followers. But the sentiment from the Qatari feminists group was clear: Qatari youth are tired of the system in place and aren’t afraid to pressure their rulers for change. With the nation’s officials eager to promote their country as being more progressive than Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will Qatar reconcile with its discriminatory policies against women?
Though Nepal’s 2015 Constitution was celebrated by many for its progressive outlook — abolishing the death penalty, establishing LGBTQ rights and equalizing property rights for sons and daughters — Nepalese women still took to the streets in protest. Why? The constitution’s framework still espouses gender-based discrimination, particularly surrounding citizenship. Children of a Nepalese father and foreign-born mother are granted citizenship by descent while children of a Nepalese mother and foreign-born father are not. Some believe that the constitutional policy was established to prevent Madhesi women in the country’s south from intermarrying with Indian men across the border, in a move to protect Nepal’s sovereignty.
Nevada’s Las Vegas Valley is promoted as a retirement paradise. But amid the sunny skies, warm weather and posh retirement communities hides a sinister practice that removes retirees from their homes and strips away their rights. Under Nevada state law, courts can appoint a guardian to those considered incompetent. The guardian then has the authority to determine where their ward can live, manage their assets, decide the medical treatment they receive and even whom they interact with. Court-appointed guardians can arrive unannounced, evict wards from their homes and place them in assisted living facilities while selling off many of their personal belongings. With an unknown number of wards suffering under guardianship laws, with most lasting until death, the system is contributing to growing rates of elder abuse and exploitation.
Fascinated by the world of shady guardianship cases? Then Netflix’s docuseries Dirty Money is for you. One episode features journalist Rachel Aviv of The New Yorker, who wrote an early exposé of an elder abuse case in Nevada. In one instance, a guardian named April Parks took control of an elderly couple, isolating them and draining them financially before being caught by authorities.
2. ‘The Guardians’
The Canadian-made documentary The Guardians is an up-close and personal look at guardianship abuse in Las Vegas. Nevada is one of the worst culprits of elder abuse due to its broadly defined conservatorship/guardianship laws. The documentary focuses on the ways cunning lawyers have taken advantage of seniors and other vulnerable people.
3. ‘Mystery of the Missing Princess’
As mentioned above, in Dubai, Princess Latifa has accused her father of holding her hostage after she fled the UAE in 2018. She has sent text messages to friends about being held against her will in a villa. Now, the United Nations is asking her father for proof that she is in good health. Photos have recently surfaced that appear to show the princess in public, most recently in Madrid, but it is still unclear whether she maintains any level of freedom. The BBC has made a documentary (available on Amazon) about the whole crazy case, and trust us, it’s a doozy.