"I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive," Britney Spears told a Los Angeles probate court this week. In her 23-minute testimony, the pop star finally got the chance to speak out about the conservatorship—a process by which an adult is deemed unfit to manage her personal and financial affairs and is assigned a court-appointed conservator—that she has been subjected to since 2008.
"I shouldn't be in a conservatorship if I can work and provide money and work for myself and pay other people—it makes no sense. The laws need to change," Spears said.
Conservatorship is a legal status given by a court when a person—usually elderly or severely mentally ill—is incapable of taking care of herself. In such cases, a court will designate a family member or a professional who can act on that person's behalf. While this status is meant to protect conservatees from potential abuse, it can actually harm them.
Spears—who alleged she has been forced by her conservators to work, take drugs, and use birth control against her will—may be the most notable case of conservatorship abuse. Her situation spawned a #FreeBritney movement which includes a podcast and a New York Times documentary.
In the most moving part of her Wednesday testimony, Spears told the court about what her formerly estranged father (who is in charge of her conservatorship) did when she refused to keep performing in Las Vegas and announced an "indefinite work hiatus."
"Three days later, after I said no to Vegas, my therapist sat me down in a room and said he had a million phone calls about how I was not cooperating in rehearsals, and I haven't been taking my medication," Spears told the court. "All this was false. He immediately, the next day, put me on lithium out of nowhere. He took me off my normal meds I've been on for five years. And lithium is a very, very strong and completely different medication compared to what I was used to. You can go mentally impaired if you take too much, if you stay on it longer than five months. But he put me on that and I felt drunk."
After that, her father sent her to a house in Beverly Hills where she was forced to work and was constantly monitored, according to Spears.
She also alleged that her conservators wouldn't let her remove her IUD because they didn't want her having any more children.
And what does Spears want? "I'd like for my boyfriend to be able to drive me in his car," she told the court. "And I want to meet with a therapist once a week, not twice a week. And I want him to come to my home. Because I actually know I do need a little therapy….I want to be able to get married and have a baby."
Conservatorships like Spears' have drawn quite a bit of controversy, particularly with elder advocates. "In California, most financial elder abuse claims are addressed by probate courts in the context of conservatorships," lawyer Kenneth Heisz writes in an article for the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.
One of the main difficulties in fighting conservatorship abuse is a lack of data. Conservatorships are overseen by local courts, and the majority of states—including California, where Spears lives—don't keep track of how many conservatorships are ongoing.
A 2005 Los Angeles Times investigation reviewed 2,400 cases in California, which the paper claims includes every case being handled by a professional conservatorship in Southern California between 1997–2003. The Times also reported that more than 500 of the conservatee cases they investigated "were entrusted to for-profit conservators without their consent at hearings that lasted minutes."
These legal arrangements can be necessary. Ideally, conservatorships aim to preserve the independence of the conservatee as much as possible. But they can also put already vulnerable people in even more vulnerable positions to be financially and personally exploited, as the Spears case seems to exemplify.
Sometimes, the exploitation can be subtle. "Commonly, conservators run up their fees in ways large and small, eating into seniors' assets," the Times reported. "A conservator charged a Los Angeles woman $170 in fees to have an employee bring her $49.93 worth of groceries. Palm Springs widow Mary Edelman kept paying from beyond the grave: Her conservators charged her estate $1,700 for attending her burial."
In order to solve this problem, experts suggest creating a comprehensive online information system to keep track of and oversee conservatorship cases.
They also recommend taking more significant measures to guarantee the conservatee's rights to due process. Conservatees and their families should know about and have access to the legal means to end conservatorships.
This issue figured in Spears' case as well, as she claimed in her testimony that she didn't know she could petition to end the conservatorship. "I'm sorry for my ignorance, but I honestly didn't know that," she told the court.
With the growing public outcry over Spears' situation and her moving testimony, it seems there is at least hope that she will get her life back. But there are still thousands of people who could have control over their lives taken away from them by a court through the conservatorship system.