Britney Spears: Creighton professor is national voice on star's conservatorship
It’s not a rare thing, these days, for a legal dispute to leak beyond often-prosaic civil court filings and dominate the public conversation. Particularly when the case involves celebrities. And especially when on of them is Britney Spears.
The pop superstar made headlines in recent years due to the public legal battle over the controversial conservatorship in which Spears’ personal and professional affairs were tightly managed by her father and attorney. Details of the arrangement inflamed Spears’ supporters who started a #FreeBritney movement on social media and protested loudly for her release. In November 2021, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge officially terminated the conservatorship.
One of the national voices in the public discourse on Spears’ situation is Creighton’s Victoria Haneman, JD, LLM, the Frank J. Kellegher Professor of Trusts and Estates in the School of Law. Haneman, who is licensed to practice law in California, has spoken with the New York Times about the unusual nature of the case and the difficulty in drawing conclusions about it based on the relatively scant amount of publicly available information.
‘Many of the records in this case are sealed, which is extraordinarily unusual, even with celebrities,” Haneman says. “There’s quite a bit in the media that is just pure speculation, without any basis in fact, because we don’t actually know all the relevant details.”
The conservatorship initially began as a temporary arrangement.
Spears first rose to superstardom in 1999 with her hit single “... Baby One More Time.” By 2008, however, she was a regular fixture in entertainment tabloids for her hard- partying lifestyle and seemingly erratic behavior.
In January 2008, after a publicized episode in which Spears refused to end a visitation with her sons, per her custody arrangement with ex-husband Kevin Federline, she was placed in an involuntary psychiatric hold. After a second incident later that month, and multiple psychiatric evaluations, Spears’ family began taking steps to place her under a temporary legal conservatorship, with her father and an attorney as conservator. It was made permanent in October 2008.
“A conservatorship is a highly legalized relationship. What’s unusual about this case is that, though they can apply to anyone, they’re mostly found in situations with elderly or other vulnerable adults,” Haneman says. “When someone is placed in a conservatorship, they are stripped of their legal rights. That means there’s usually a pretty high standard to put someone in that situation.”
Generally, Haneman says, one of the most common reasons for a conservatorship is a slow decline in the ability to cope with the responsibilities of everyday life. In some cases, a major health issue, like a person falling into a coma, will also bring about the need for a legal conservator.
At first glance, she says, Spears’ situation does raise eyebrows.
“In my experience in California, substance use disorder or addiction, in the absence of something more, does not usually create grounds for a conservatorship. It’s hard to establish that someone using substances has no lucid moments,” she says, particularly considering that Spears continued to have a successful career while under the arrangement, touring live, appearing on television, establishing a concert residency in Las Vegas and producing albums.
Haneman, however, is quick to point out that the court records that initially led to the conservatorship are sealed, and any underlying mental health diagnosis that could have impacted the court’s decision is still unknown.
In testimony years later, Spears would describe her legal situation as “abusive.” Her finances were strictly controlled by her conservators, as was her personal life. Later media coverage would reveal Spears was forced to use an IUD — a birth control device — even though she wanted to have another baby.
In 2019, after 11 years living under the conservatorship, stories about the situation and Spears’ unhappiness with it began to appear in the media, giving rise to the #FreeBritney movement among her fans. In November 2021, a judge finally ended the arrangement.
Speaking to the New York Times, which contacted her after news broke of the judge’s decision, Haneman said it was unusual for the judge in the case to end the conservatorship without first ordering a mental health evaluation of Spears.
“I am extremely surprised that this conservatorship is ended without an evaluation,” Haneman told the paper, echoing the opinion of several other lawyers the Times interviewed.
It was a sentiment that did not go over well with some. Haneman says her inbox and Twitter mentions were flooded with angry replies from the #FreeBritney crowd, many of whom viewed the situation in black-and-white terms.
Haneman says the reality is more complicated.
“Multiple things can be true,” Haneman says. “It’s entirely possible that she was validly placed in this conservatorship, but that it shouldn’t have continued as long as it did, especially considering she was working during it.”
Since the judge’s decision, Spears has remarried, signed a book deal for an upcoming memoir and partnered with singer Elton John on a new single.
Haneman says the Spears legal saga raises serious questions that she addresses with her students in the classroom, in particular issues related to disability justice and intersectionality.
“I explain to students that there are obvious issues involving women and the law and reproductive justice at play here,” she says. “I ask them whether a similarly situated man would be subject to a conservatorship for as long as Britney was.”
The case also highlights the importance of trust law, she says, since establishing a trust and a designated trustee in advance of a situation in which one is needed can prevent potential conservatorship abuse.
“That’s an interesting issue that hasn’t been discussed in the media as much, with regard to this case,” Haneman says. “Establishing a trust can really go far to prevent you from ever being placed in a conservatorship. Trust law could’ve been leaned upon to protect Britney and could be in the future to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”