Britney Spears can’t spend her own money without permission or decide where she lives. She doesn’t have the right to choose who she spends time with, and can’t enter into contracts. Despite being an adult, for more than a decade now, every single one of these decisions and more have been made for Britney by her father, Jamie Spears. The new documentary Framing Britney Spears thrusts the legal arrangement, called conservatorship, into the spotlight. But it provides an incomplete picture. There is a broader, systemic issue at play. Spears isn’t an anomaly, and in actuality, conservatorship has few safeguards and checks. Legal personhood is regularly stripped from disabled people through conservatorship, and nobody blinks an eye. The biggest difference is that Spears is famous. The unusual part of the story is that people are paying attention.
In the documentary, Liz Day, a senior editor at The New York Times, describes conservatorship as “a unique legal arrangement usually designed for elderly people who aren’t able to take care of themselves or their money.” She calls it “unusual” that someone as “young and productive” as Spears would find herself stripped of her legal rights. But this is far from the whole story on conservatorship. There are many young people under conservatorship, mostly with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as some with significant mental illness. It is difficult to say exactly how many young people are under guardianship. There is no national database, and state record-keeping is poor. However, a 2019 report from the National Council on Disability describes a “school-to-guardianship-pipeline,” in which conservatorship over students with intellectual and developmental disabilities leaving school is treated as a matter of course.
In California, courts are supposed to exhaust all alternatives before entering a person into conservatorship. This is certainly the opinion of Vivian Lee Thoreen, an attorney who has represented Britney’s father and who appears in Framing Britney Spears. “Courts take conservatorships really seriously, and that’s because, I think, every person’s rights are sacred,” Thoreen said. “There are rules and procedures in place to make sure that there’s accountability. And really, the theme of conservatorships is to act in the conservatee’s best interests.” However, she later concedes, she has never seen a conservatee successfully terminate a conservatorship. She does not seem to acknowledge the contradiction.
According to Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project, there are normally few checks during conservatorship proceedings. “[They] tend to be pretty pro forma,” she told me. “Before a judge grants conservatorship, the judge should ask: What else have you tried? Is there a danger issue? What’s going wrong, that you think this person needs conservatorship? What might address that issue short of stripping this person of all of their civil rights and civil liberties? And in reality, judges rarely ask those questions.”
This seems to be the case for Spears. Adam Streisand, a lawyer who initially represented her, recounts in the documentary: “The day I went to court for her, the judge said, ‘I have a medical report, Mr. Streisand, and you haven’t seen it, and I’m not going to show it to you. And it shows that she’s not capable of retaining counsel on her own.’” And, as is almost always the case, Streisand accepted the judgment. After all, he hadn’t seen and did not know what was in the medical report.
William Dean, a resident of Rockland, Maine, was put under guardianship without input from himself or his family. Dean was an autistic savant. He’d never taken a music lesson but could play any song he heard once. His instrument of choice was the organ. He owned three. In 2012, his mother died, and he was hospitalized for a subsequent mental health crisis. While he was hospitalized, the state of Maine sought guardianship over Dean—what the state calls conservatorship. That guardianship was quickly granted. Within a year, the state sold his waterfront home for less than half of its assessed value. It also sold his beloved organs and euthanized his cat, Caterpillar. All of this was completely legal. The case only made the news because Dean’s cousins were unhappy with the state’s actions and sued. If Dean didn’t have concerned family members with the resources to hire a lawyer, no one would have ever known. As it stands, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state was immune to liability. William Dean died in 2016, and his surviving family got nothing.
Conservators have an enormous amount of power over their conservatees, and there are few, if any, checks on that power. Despite that kind of absolute control, conservatorships are often seen as fundamentally benign. The question of basic self-determination is treated as an afterthought. There are certainly cases of abuse or exploitation, as in the case of William Dean, but those are treated as exceptions. Dean probably would have been better off with a benevolent conservator, but he still would have been robbed of all of his legal rights. “There’s a lot of paternalism in it,” Brennan-Krohn explained. She feels there are harms inherent in the system itself. “What we really often see is that it’s treated as a benign helping system.… There isn’t recognition that there are real risks to this.”
What it comes down to, according to Brennan-Krohn, is best interest versus stated interest. Best interest means what it sounds like: Decisions are made based on what would be healthiest and safest for the person involved. Conservatorship is meant to provide for a person’s best interest. Stated interest, on the other hand, is what a person says they want, regardless of whether that desire is healthy or safe.
During the interview, Brennan-Krohn compared the conflicting concepts to eating too many M&M’s. “I might eat more M&M’s than my doctor would think is in my best interest for my cholesterol, for example, but nobody’s going to court to ban my access to M&M’s because I’m not perceived as having a disability,” she explained. “There’s this double standard where, if you’re perceived as having a disability, your preferences are subsumed by what’s in your, quote, best interest. That’s just not how humans function.” Nondisabled adults make harmful decisions all the time, and they usually do not risk losing their civil rights for it. In this way, disability becomes a line through which different rights—or denial of rights—are articulated.
The ability to make bad decisions, for nondisabled people, is considered a normal part of the human experience. What Britney Spears wants should matter more than what is in her “best interest.” She is an adult and should have the same self-determination other adults enjoy. That includes the right to make bad decisions, or any decisions at all. But under conservatorship, what Spears says she wants simply does not matter. Without radical change to the conservatorship system, she and others like her will have no recourse. Spears is in an ongoing legal battle to get what she hopes will be a better, more benevolent conservator. What she won’t get—can’t get—under this system is freedom.