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By: Zack Hennen, Volume 106 Staff Member

After months of legal deliberation, family infighting, and a full-blown pop culture movement, Britney Spears was released from her “Toxic”[1] thirteen-year conservatorship earlier this month.[2] Britney was placed under conservatorship in 2008 after a lengthy record of controversy left the 27-year-old pop star in financial debt and public scrutiny.[3] The arrangement gave Britney’s father, James Spears, complete legal dominion over her financial affairs and personal conduct.[4] That gave him broad, state-sanctioned power to determine Britney’s everyday activities, including any earning arrangements, spending decisions, and personal relationships, down to the last minute detail.[5] In fact, Mr. Spears’ control was so extensive that it permitted him to compel Britney to perform or record on demand, limit her personal spending to a strict weekly allowance, and even use birth control[6] and abandon her intentions to marry her fiancé.[7]

Given such harsh restrictions on Britney’s most basic sense of self-determination, her conservatorship has attracted increasing public attention in recent years. Thanks, at least in part, to the popular support of Britney through the “#FreeBritney” movement, Mr. Spears stepped down as conservator of Britney’s financial affairs in 2019 amid well-documented accusations of exploitation throughout the course of the conservatorship.[8] Indeed, Britney’s conservatorship should be credited for bringing attention to a major problem in state conservatorship and guardianship law, that is, conservatee exploitation. As stated by Britney’s attorney after the hearing that terminated her conservatorship, “if this can happen to Britney, it can happen to anybody.”[9]


A “conservator” is “a guardian, protector, or preserver,” appointed by a court to manage the affairs of somebody who is legally determined to be incapable of doing so themself.[10] California recognizes two versions of conservatorship. “Lanterman-Petris-Short conservatorships” are meant for people who are “gravely disabled”[11] such that they are “unable to provide for [their] basic personal needs for food, clothing, or shelter.”[12] In a probate conservatorship, on the other hand, the court appoints a conservator to manage the conservatee’s person, estate, or both.[13] Unlike Lanterman-Petris-Short conservatorships, just about anyone can petition the court to place someone under probate conservatorship, and the petition need only include a “brief statement of facts” explaining the reasons that conservatorship is necessary.[14] Britney’s case is an example of a probate conservatorship; originally assigned conservator of both Britney’s person and estate, Mr. Spears surrendered control of her estate in 2019,[15] but he retained staunch control over her personal conduct, life decisions, and bodily autonomy.[16]


Though it took the public exploitation of a famous pop star to bring attention to the inequities of conservatorship, there are now considerable legislative efforts for improvement under development, both federally and in states like California. These efforts aim to increase autonomy for all parties to conservatorships and to reduce instances of exploitation.

A. Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation (FREE) Act

The Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation (FREE) Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 20, 2021.[17] The bill seeks to accomplish two goals: 1) issue grants to states that provide “caseworkers and legal guardians and conservators for legally incompetent adults,” and 2) protect the rights of “legally incompetent adults who are the subject of a legal guardianship or conservatorship.”[18] To be eligible for the grant, states will have to maintain a consistent database detailing all conservatorships or guardianships established by the state.[19] States often fail to document the actual volume of conservatorships that exist under their own system, contributing to the postponement of public attention to this issue.[20] The concerning lack of attention paid to exploitative conservatorships is perhaps the biggest lesson learned from Britney’s experience, and this bill would essentially codify that lesson. But the real value of the bill is in its counter-exploitation measures. Section 1 requires the state to replace or supervise private conservators.[21] Further, conservatees will be given statute-imposed rights to unfettered communication with state caseworkers, a mechanism by which to petition the court for the replacement of their conservator, and a private cause of action for exploited conservatees.[22] With these added tools, conservatees like Britney will be better able to protect themselves against exploitative conservators like Mr. Spears.

B. California Conservatorship Reformation Law

In the fall of 2021, California Governor, Gavin Newsom, signed a bill, California AB 1194 (AB 1194) to amend several state conservatorship statutes.[23] The changes include a mandate requiring professional conservators to post their fees publicly on the internet, requiring investigations into professional conservators to deter conservatee exploitation, and imposing harsher penalties and sanctions on abusive conservators.[24] Most notably, AB 1194 adds section 1851.6 to the California Probate Code, requiring the probate court to investigate any prima facie allegations of abuse by a conservator and requiring a hearing to determine if abuse occurred.[25] Furthermore, participation in the hearing entitles conservatees to legal representation by counsel independent of their conservator and grants conservatees the opportunity to request the termination of their conservatorship.

C. Statutes in Conjunction

While both are still in the development stage, the FREE Act and California’s proposed conservatorship scheme are a step in the right direction. Though, standing alone, it does little to address the demonstrably easy process of initiating an involuntary conservatorship over a vulnerable individual in the first place,[26] the FREE Act is appealing for its potential as a supplement to revamped conservatorship laws imposed by the states. Because conservatorship law is well-established as a state-governed body of law, Congress will likely hesitate to implement sweeping changes that interfere with state functions. Working in conjunction with revamped state laws, however, The FREE Act adds some broad Federal protections along with incentives for states to make the necessary improvements. For example, AB 1194, supplemented by the FREE Act, would correct the major flaws in California conservatorship law that enabled Britney’s unnecessarily lengthy conservatorship. Had Britney been given mechanisms like the right to independent legal counsel, guaranteed judicial review, government oversight and investigation into suspect conservators, and self-protecting causes of action, her conservatorship would have likely ended years earlier.

Britney Spears’ conservatorship has shined an overdue spotlight on a “Toxic” system of conservatorship. In the wake of #FreeBritney, some legislatures are giving a second look to their outdated conservatorship systems.[27] Though more needs to be done to ensure that no other qualified individuals, pop star or not, will be subjected to the same exploitation as Britney Spears, current legislative action is headed in the right direction.


[1] Britney Spears, Toxic (Jive Records 2004).

[2] Joe Coscarelli & Julia Jacobs, Judge Ends Conservatorship Overseeing Britney Spears’s Life and Finances, N.Y. Times (Nov. 12, 2021), [].

[3] The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears, FX (Feb. 5, 2021), [].

[4] Id.

[5] Id. Extreme examples include Britney’s ability to communicate with friends, post on social media, and purchase an iPhone.

[6] This detail is reminiscent of the United States’ disturbing history of involuntary sterilization of people with disabilities. Buck v. Bell, 275 U.S. 200 (1927) (upholding the compulsory sterilization of the “feeble minded”). Though occasionally used to exemplify “anticanon” jurisprudence, Buck v. Bell has not yet been explicitly overturned. Jamal Greene, The Anticanon, 125 Harv. L. Rev. 379, 388–90 (2011). See infra note 27, for an example of new legislation prohibiting the compulsory sterilization of people under guardianship in Minnesota.

[7] Id. See, e.g., Chloe Melas, Britney Spears’ Conservatorship Ends, CNN Entertainment (Nov. 12, 2021), [].

[8] Laura Snapes, Britney Spears’ Father Files for Immediate End to Conservatorship, Guardian (Nov. 3, 2021), []. Indeed, now that the conservatorship has ended, the exploitative nature of its management is under private investigation. Britney’s estate funded the conservatorship operation itself along with all legal costs incurred in opposing Britney’s attempts to end the conservatorship. Further, Britney’s lawyer suggests that Mr. Spears may have, himself, received millions of dollars from Britney’s estate. See, e.g., Elizabeth Wagmeister, Britney Spears is Finally Free, but Her Battle for Justice is far From Over, Variety (Nov. 17, 2021), [].

[9] See supra note 2.

[10] Conservator, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

[11] Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 5350.

[12] Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 5008(h)(1)(A).

[13] Cal. Prob. Code § 1821(a); Jocelyn Wiener, The Britney Effect: How California is Grappling with Conservatorship, Cal Matters (July 22, 2021), [].

[14] Cal. Prob. Code § 1820(a) (providing that a petition can be filed by a spouse or relative of the conservatee, the conservatee themself, or “any other interested person or friend”); Cal. Prob. Code § 1821(a).

[15] See supra note 3; Wiener supra note 13.

[16] See Snapes supra note 8. Even without control of Britney’s estate, Mr. Spears retained extreme control over Britney’s life, including her production schedule. Under his control, Britney released four albums, performed four world tours, and completed a four-year residency agreement worth over $137 Million. That Britney’s current net worth is an estimated $60 Million adds merit to accusations of conservatee exploitation. Madeline Berg, Britney Spears’ Net Worth Revealed – and it’s Shockingly Low Compared to Her Pop Peers, Forbes (Feb. 17, 2021),–and-its-shockingly-low-compared-to-her-pop-peers/?sh=6c3271618ac3 [].

[17] Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation (FREE) Act, H.R. 4545, 117th Cong. (2021).

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at Sec. 2(b)(1).

[20] See Wiener supra note 13. In fact, this failure to document cases is one major critique against conservatorship laws. If states do not closely track the mass of conservatorships that exist under their system, they can hardly expect to notice when it grows beyond a reasonable size.

[21] H.R. 4545.

[22] Id. at Sec. 3(b), (c).

[23] 2021 Cal. Legis. Serv. Ch. 417 (A.B. 1194) (West).

[24] Id. Civil action for $10,000 for each instance of abuse by professional conservators or $1,000 for each instance by a non-professional, “payable to the estate of the conservatee.”

[25] Id.

[26] Joe Cascarelli, Britney Spears: End Conservatorship, but Remove my Father First, N.Y. Times (Sept. 22, 2021),,from%20the%20legal%20arrangement%20first [].

[27] See, e.g., Minn. Stat. § 524.5-310. For instance, in 2020, Minnesota’s Guardianship statute was amended to require courts to consider whether “less restrictive measures” than the appointment of a guardian (the equivalent to a “conservator” under Minnesota law) could satisfy the needs of the conservatee. “The court must make specific findings” indicating the reasons that such alternatives would not suffice. In the same year, the legislature implemented a “bill of rights for persons subject to guardianship or conservatorship.” Minn. Stat. § 524.5-120. The bill of rights specifically protects several of the most notable rights infringements that Britney was subjected to, including the rights to “marry and procreate,” to vote, to legal representation, and to elect or object to sterilization.