Britney Spears Could Remain Under Conservatorship for Years, Expert Attorney Says
Britney Spears gave an explosive testimony earlier this week, addressing the court publicly for the first time in the nearly 13 years she has been under a conservatorship. The hearing was a momentous step in Spears’ contentious and perplexing legal battle, with support continuing to build for the pop star as fans around the globe call to #FreeBritney.
Spears, who was placed under a court-ordered conservatorship in 2008 with her father, Jamie Spears, appointed as her sole conservator, delivered a powerful and disturbing account that struck a chord. But the musician’s statement cannot set her free — yet.
As the court session came to a close, fans outside the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse asked about the ruling. But there is nothing to rule on because Spears has not yet filed a petition to terminate her conservatorship, begging the question: why wasn’t paperwork filed ahead of the high-profile hearing?
In order to be released from the conservatorship, an attorney for Spears will have to file to terminate. According to Spears’ own statement, she had no idea this was even a possibility until very recently.
“I didn’t know I could petition the conservatorship to be ended,” Spears told the judge on Wednesday afternoon. “I’m sorry for my ignorance, but I honestly didn’t know that.”
During her 24-minute testimony, the star told Judge Brenda Penny that her attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, advised her not to speak up.
“My lawyer, Sam, been very scared for me to go forward,” Spears told the judge before stating that she would like the opportunity to select her own lawyer, rather than working with a court-appointed attorney. “He told me I should keep it to myself,” she added.
“I would honestly like to sue my family, to be totally honest with you. I also would like to be able to share my story with the world, and what they did to me, instead of it being a hush-hush secret to benefit all of them,” Spears said in court, appearing remotely. “I want to be able to be heard on what they did to me by making me keep this in for so long. It is not good for my heart. I’ve been so angry and I cry every day. It concerns me, I’m told I’m not allowed to expose the people who did this to me.”
Ingham has represented Spears since 2008 when her conservatorship began, following her public breakdown that played out in the press. After Spears delivered her remarks to the court, Ingham told the judge he would resign from the case, if that was her wish.
Ahead of Spears’ testimony, Ingham alluded to not knowing what his client was about to say. “These are entirely her words,” he said.
With the world standing behind Spears, pressure is mounting for the Princess of Pop to be released from her conservatorship. But the legal road ahead does not present a clear path — especially with so many bizarre details in the high-profile case, most notably the apparent actions of her very own lawyer and father.
Here, Variety speaks to legal expert, Sarah J. Wentz, a partner at the firm Fox Rothschild, who specializes in estates and conservatorships, and has never worked with or met Britney Spears…
You read Britney Spears’ full testimony. Based on your expert opinion, does she sound like someone who needs to be under a conservatorship?
It’s hard to say based on yesterday’s testimony because we still don’t know the facts. It’s certainly possible that there is a history in the record that shows something — we just don’t know. Regardless, I think what really needs to be evaluated is how could they scale this back and give her as many rights as possible? Clearly, she is someone who can have that conversation and is able to handle a fair amount for herself, but if there is a problem like remembering to take medication or things of that nature, this can be done on a much smaller scale.
Britney used the word “abusive” when describing her conservatorship to the judge. As someone who specializes in conservatorships, does this feel like an abusive situation?
Based on what she said, yes.
Of course, we can’t take Britney’s statement as fact. At this point, it’s just her word.
For the judge to make any sort of ruling, Britney needs to file legal paperwork to officially request to terminate the conservatorship, correct?
Yes, and this is what I don’t understand. No matter what she was going to say, there never could have been an action by the judge to terminate based on her statement. If you’re representing a conservatee, your job as a lawyer is to meet with that client and understand if they’re going to give testimony to the court. It’s your job that understand what they’re going to say and what they’re going to ask for. And then you, as the lawyer, have the job to file the paperwork.
Isn’t it the lawyer’s duty to inform Britney of her rights?
It is. I would hope that her lawyer had that conversation with her. It is something that a lawyer should be frequently talking to a client about because when you file annual well-being reports with the courts, before that is filed, having a conversation with the client to see what might need to be adjusted or changed and making sure they are getting the help they need is something that should have been a regular conversation.
I have to imagine that a normal course of action is to have prep meetings prior to the hearing, and Britney said she has been speaking to her lawyer three times per week. How is it possible that she was not aware that she had the right to file to petition to terminate the conservatorship?
He must not have known what she was going to say. You can’t totally control what your client is going to say. But the questions that I would have for her attorney are, “Did you have a conversation with your client? Did you know in advance what she was coming to court to ask for? And if so, why wasn’t that paperwork filed with the court before that hearing?” Now, it is certainly possible that it’s not his fault that the paperwork hadn’t been filed. She could have not told him what she was going to say. But not filing that paperwork causes further delay because they now need to go back, file a court petition, wait for a new hearing, probably have her come back and testify all over again, and at that point, then the judge could rule on it.
That sounds like it could be a long process. What sort of timeframe is Britney looking at for a resolution?
The only way there would be a quick ruling is if the conservators agree jointly that now is the time to terminate. If they contest it, it will basically be a trial where each side presents evidence to show why it’s needed or why it’s not needed. That can be an extensive process.
How extensive? Do you think Britney will still be under a conservatorship in another year?
A very long time. Trials can take years. I have contested conservatorship cases where we took 15 depositions. I would imagine this would be a case with a lot of deposition, so you’re talking about a full-blown trial. It’s going be hard to prove some of the things that she’s saying, but there could be caregivers who witnessed a lot of this stuff, and could corroborate her statements. If there is a termination petition filed and it is opposed, I think this will be a long drawn-out battle because over 13 years, there are a lot of witnesses that they would want to depose to use as evidence.
Britney’s attorney will now have to file a petition to terminate the conservatorship, and then Britney’s father would have to consent to the termination for her to be let out. What happens if he opposes it?
If her father does not agree and they go through with a full trial, if I were her lawyer, I would probably ask the judge for a temporary deviation from the conservatorship — something that gave her more rights, in the interim. I don’t know what all of those rights would be, but certainly, as a 40-year-old woman, if she wants to have a child, they should be removing that. You don’t want to end up in a three-year trial and then she can’t have a baby anymore. There are some really particular timing issues that I would think a judge would have to respect because Britney is on a clock. Sadly, all of us women are.
Britney said she wanted to go on the record in open court because she wants the world to hear her own words from her; not from others who have exploited her. Was that a smart strategy on Britney’s part?
Yes — look at the attention it’s getting globally. From what she said, it sounded like it was her only strategy right now because if her lawyers were not conveying what her rights were and what her options were, then I don’t know how else she would have gotten the judge to hear her and to look into the potential abuse that she’s alleging.
Even though no ruling can be made based on Britney’s testimony, the judge is now aware of her account. That has no count for something, right?
Frequently, the judge will want to hear from the conservatee. I think that the judge really wanted to get a feel for this. The judge needed to give her an opportunity to have her voice heard.
Britney alleged that her lawyer told her not to expose whatever happened to her during her conservatorship. Was she being silenced, or is that typical guidance?
Her lawyer might have told her that she can’t say certain things because she would need to file and take a more proper course of action. It would not surprise me if she decided to do this on her own, and said, “This is my shot and if I tell somebody they might stop me, and I need to get this out there.” The judge can’t un-hear this at this point.
That said, Britney made very serious allegations, including being drugged, being forced to work, not being given the privacy to change her clothing and not being able to have a baby. Now that the judge has heard her account, should these claims be investigated?
Yes, I think they should be. I think the court will appoint an investigator to look into those items, whether a petition to terminate the conservatorship is filed or not, because there are some things that are so alarming that I think the judge will feel absolutely obligated to have an in-depth investigator spend time to try to make sure that they are treating her humanely.
What would be a timeline for an investigation? Would that be something that would happen immediately?
If I was her lawyer, I would have already filed a request for the judge to do that and to modify the behaviors of the conservators. Immediately. I mean, it would have been there when the judge arrived on Thursday morning.
If the court investigates her claims and finds what Britney is saying to be true, would her father be removed from her conservatorship?
Yes, I believe that he would be because some of the allegations that she made are completely inappropriate. Regardless or not if they have reached their fiduciary duty with respect to her finances, if some of those other statements are true, they’ve clearly breached their fiduciary duty to be acting in her best interest. Another likely scenario is that the court is so alarmed by what they heard that to ensure none of that happens while they investigate this, they could possibly remove him on a limited basis, while they undergo a further investigation.
Based on the global media attention on Jamie Spears, do you think her father might want to take a step back, in the interest of his daughter?
I think it would be the smart thing to do, if he really has her best interest in mind. He can find somebody that is suitable who can really do that job without taking advantage of her.
Britney said that she believes everyone in charge of her conservatorship should be put in jail. If Britney’s claims are proven to be true, could her father be held criminally responsible?
Well, in an elderly conservatorship, there are pretty strong elder abuse rules, so my guess is that there are probably some similar rules that relate to somebody with diminished capacity when it comes to the criminal code.
Britney also said that she wants to sue her family. Can she?
She definitely could sue them. If certain statements that she made proved that they did things in their own self interest to line their pockets versus hers, that’s an easier case to prove than some of the softer issues, which are really hard to prosecute on because they will say that they were trying to act in her best interest — for instance, it’s really hard to charge someone for saying, “You didn’t let her have a baby,” because there could be so many reasons that they could say they were trying to protect her. But with money issues, if they get a forensic accountant involved and find there is some wrongdoing, certainly, they can be subject to criminal charges.
Britney’s attorney said that he would resign from her case, if that’s her wish. Is that difficult to accomplish, or can happen somewhat easily?
I do think she’s going to end up getting a new lawyer, based on what I read in her testimony. I don’t think there’s even a small chance that she proceeds on this without a new lawyer. While they might have a decent relationship, he clearly isn’t doing what he needed to do for her. I think what will probably happen is that her lawyer will have a conference with the judge, and if he decides that he’s going to resign because Britney is in favor of that, the judge could appoint a lawyer because of Britney’s heavy interest in wanting her own lawyer.
Would the lawyer be of Britney’s choosing, or would the court appoint an attorney again?
The court can do whatever they want to, but in this circumstance, they don’t really have a reason not to give her the preference of her choice. I would be surprised if they don’t go along with her choice, as long as the lawyer is a professional in this area — just because a lawyer isn’t on the court’s list of approved lawyers, that doesn’t mean you can’t get someone else. Now, courts don’t normally appoint $1,000/hour lawyers, but in this particular case, if she’s requesting that person and she has the funds to pay for it, I doubt the court is going to be really concerned about that. She is going to want the best of the best if this is going to go into litigation. I would imagine she is going to want to get a new lawyer appointed first, and then proceed with next steps.
Britney asked the judge to be let out of her conservatorship without further evaluation. Would the court ever approve that?
That seems unlikely to me. The judge will want to make sure that they’re doing the right thing. I don’t see the court ending this without at least some interviews between her with the court investigator.
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