BY MEGAN MCCLUSKEY TIME
As the fallout from Britney Spears’ explosive June 23 testimony continues, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny ruled on a number of key decisions in the singer’s conservatorship case on Wednesday.
At the highly anticipated July 14 hearing—which was not public—Judge Penny approved the recent resignation of Spears’ court-appointed attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, as well as Spears’ request for prominent Hollywood lawyer Mathew S. Rosengart—a former federal prosecutor who has represented a number of A-list celebrities, including Sean Penn, Steven Spielberg and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in recent years—to manage her case going forward. Judge Penny was also expected to address corporate fiduciary Bessemer Trust’s petition to remove itself as co-conservator of Spears’ estate.
But what ultimately lies ahead for Spears is still up in the air, legal experts say. As her conservatorship currently stands, Spears’ personal care manager, Jodi Montgomery, is set to continue as temporary conservator of her person until September 3, while Spears’ father, Jamie Spears—who Britney has been pushing to have removed from the conservatorship—serves as conservator of her estate. At the July 14 hearing, Britney reportedly requested that the court charge Jamie with conservatorship abuse.
Although Spears has now publicly stated that the legal guardianship that’s controlled her life for 13 years is “abusive” and that she wants it to end immediately, a petition has not yet been filed to terminate it. Spears said during her testimony that she previously wasn’t aware she could file to end the arrangement.
Here’s what to know about the current state of Spears’ conservatorship and what could happen next in her case.
What’s happened since Spears’s testimony?
There have been several rapid-fire developments in Britney’s case since she spoke out in court on June 23.
As support for Spears and the #FreeBritney movement swelled in the days following her testimony, Jamie Spears responded by filing a series of court documents on June 29 calling for an investigation into the “serious allegations” made by Britney and raising concerns about the roles of both Montgomery and Ingham.
“It is critical that the Court confirm whether or not Ms. Spears’s testimony was accurate in order to determine what corrective actions, if any, need to be taken,” the filings read.
Without addressing the direct claims that Britney made against her father, Jamie’s lawyers asserted that he is not the one in control of Britney’s day-to-day life. Instead, his legal team shifted blame onto Montgomery, who has served as temporary conservator of Britney’s person since September 2019.
“Mr. Spears is simply not involved in any decisions related to Ms. Spears’s personal care or medical or reproductive issues,” his attorneys wrote, seemingly in reference to Britney’s claim that, under the conservatorship, she’s been prevented from removing an IUD that’s kept her from having another baby. “Mr. Spears is unable to hear and address his daughter’s concerns directly because he has been cut off from communicating with her.”
On June 30, the Los Angeles Superior Court filed documents showing that Judge Penny had denied a months-old request from Ingham to remove Jamie from the conservatorship—a decision unrelated to Britney’s testimony. The following day, July 1, Bessemer Trust requested to resign as co-conservator of Britney’s estate out of respect for her desire to end the conservatorship. “Petitioner has heard the Conservatee and respects her wishes,” the filing read.
The next week, Ingham requested to be dismissed from the conservatorship and asked that his resignation go into effect “upon the appointment of new court-appointed counsel.”
Ingham’s request was followed by both Britney’s mother, Lynne Spears, and Montgomery filing dueling petitions asking the court to allow Britney to retain independent counsel. However, the petitions differed in that Lynne asked for Britney to be allowed to personally hire her own private attorney while Montgomery urged Judge Penny to appoint a guardian ad litem—someone who looks out for a person who is allegedly incapable of making their own decisions—for the sole purpose of helping Britney find new legal representation.
“Her capacity is certainly different today than it was in 2008, and Conservatee should no longer be held to the 2008 standard, whereby she was found to ‘not have the capacity to retain counsel,’” Lynne’s petition read, noting that Spears has been able to earn “literally hundreds of millions of dollars as an international celebrity” since the conservatorship was put in place.
Montgomery also filed a request for the court to authorize payment by Britney’s estate for 24/7 live security services for herself in response to increased threats and harassment she said she has received in the wake of Britney’s testimony. Jamie subsequently asked the court to deny the request.
Who’s resigned from the conservatorship and other roles close to Spears?
In addition to Bessemer Trust and Ingham requesting to resign from their roles in the conservatorship, the singer’s longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, has also announced his intention to vacate his position.
In a July 5 letter addressed to Jamie Spears and Montgomery, Rudolph said that he recently learned that Britney has no plans to return to her singing career, noting that he hasn’t directly communicated with her since she announced an “indefinite work hiatus” in January 2019.
“As you know, I have never been a part of the conservatorship nor its operations, so I am not privy to many of these details,” the letter read. “I was originally hired at Britney’s request to help manage and assist her with her career. And as her manager, I believe it is in Britney’s best interest for me to resign from her team as my professional services are no longer needed.”
What’s happening with Britney Spears’s lawyer?
In the wake of Ingham filing to resign as Britney’s court-appointed attorney, Britney began seeking to retain independent counsel.
On Monday, the New York Times reported that Britney had entered into discussions with Rosengart to represent her in a bid to end her conservatorship. Rosengart attended Wednesday’s hearing to make a due-process argument on Britney’s behalf and was ultimately approved as Britney’s new lawyer.
Leading up to Wednesday’s hearing, Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project, spoke to TIME about the critical nature of Britney’s request to hire her own attorney.
“There’s this question about whether the judge will allow Britney to choose her own lawyer or will just appoint someone without input from Britney. And that’s a really big problem,” she said. “It needs to mean something for people in conservatorships to have a right to counsel—which they do in California. It needs to mean the right to effective counsel, to independent counsel, to counsel that you trust and you choose. It’s a real problem if the lawyer who, in theory, is advocating for you, isn’t someone you had any say in choosing and isn’t someone you trust.”
The ACLU also filed an amicus brief urging Judge Penny to let Spears decide on her own representation. “In this case, the public record indicates that Ms. Spears is both able to retain legal counsel, and plans to do so,” the filing read. “The Court should ensure Ms. Spears’ right to do so is respected, and ensure that she has the supports necessary to make this decision for herself. The Court should not interfere with this decision unless Ms. Spears selects a person who is clearly unqualified for the position, is unwilling to serve in this role, or has a significant conflict.”
However, Judge Penny’s approval of Britney’s request to choose her own lawyer isn’t an indication that the court will rule to terminate the conservatorship, says Bernard A. Krooks, founding partner of New York law firm Littman Krooks LLP.
“Most judges will err on the side of allowing that because there’s great due process in the United States for having the ability to hire your own attorney and judges are reluctant to take that away from folks,” he says. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if the judge allowed her to hire her own attorney and still concluded that she needs a guardian.”
How can a conservatorship end?
California probate law states that a conservatorship can’t be lifted until a petition to end the arrangement is filed by the conservator, the conservatee, or “[t]he spouse, or domestic partner, or any relative or friend of the conservatee or other interested person.”
But even once a petition is filed, the road to ending a legal guardianship of this nature still tends to be complicated, says Krooks—especially considering that Britney has said she wants to be released from the conservatorship without undergoing any further evaluations.
“Once you have a guardian or conservator appointed, I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it’s difficult to get released from the jurisdiction of the court,” he says. “Cases where the guardianship is removed are few and far between, because at that point, the burden is on the person who’s been deemed incapacitated to show the judge that they no longer need a guardian. In this case, Britney is insisting that she does not wish to undergo any kind of evaluation. And while one can certainly sympathize with her and understand her anger and frustration, the fact that she’s not willing to be evaluated makes it difficult for any judge to authorize the release of a guardianship.”
The high level of difficulty associated with getting out of a conservatorship also reflects overarching issues with America’s conservatorship and guardianship system as a whole, says Brennan-Kohn.
“It’s much easier to get into a conservatorship or guardianship than it is to get out of one. And part of that is due to this deep-seated view that judges and lawyers and families often have that conservatorships and guardianships are fundamentally benign and benevolent institutions that protect people,” she says. “They can be very hard to get out of because people often get caught in a sort of catch-22, where if they go to the court and they’re doing great, then that’s used as a reason not to remove the conservatorship because it’s working really well. But that really misses the bigger picture issue that there is harm in losing the right to make your own choices.”