By: Karyn Turk
The #freebritney movement says that the conservatorship of Britney Spears is TOXIC, and finally, it seems that we will hear directly from the pop icon. Britney is scheduled to address the court about her conservatorship on June 23. According to Reuters, a judge agreed to the request from Spears’ legal team and set a hearing date. The singer rarely attends court hearings and hasn’t publicly commented on the long-running legal matter, which was recently the subject of the widely discussed documentary Framing Britney Spears.
“My client [Spears] has requested a hearing at which she can address the court directly,” the singer’s lawyer Samuel Ingham reportedly told the court on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. “My client has asked that it be done on an expedited basis.” On behalf of Spears, Ingham filed a petition in March to have the singer’s father, Jamie Spears, permanently removed as her conservator. Ingham argued that Jamie “relinquished his powers effective as of September 9, 2019”, the date he stepped away from the role due to health reasons. Jamie and his legal representative have repeatedly defended his role as conservator, claiming that fans “have it wrong” about the agreement and that Britney is still able to “live her life the way she wants, like a normal person.”
The fact is that Britney Spears can’t be a “normal person” as long as she has been stripped of her constitutional rights. She can’t make financial decisions or personal decisions. The conservatorship covers everything from negotiating business opportunities to restricting who she can spend time with. This legal process is in place for individuals incapable of making decisions, most often people with mental disabilities or dementia. The Britney case shows us that this incapacity net can be cast very broadly. A conservative estimate is that 1.3 million Americans are in the same boat as Spears. In the United States, legal guardians’ control $50 billion in assets. These wards of the system lose their fundamental American rights. They cannot be “normal” Americans under guardianships and conservatorships. Because it is virtually impossible to reverse this process, most of them will live without fundamental freedoms. They are raw meat for salivating legal profiteers. Legal wolves whose wallets seem to be the ultimate beneficiary.
I know this topic intimately. My mother was placed in guardianship. As a child, you are forced to the back seat. You have your hands tied behind your back and a proverbial gag on your mouth. You can no longer fight for your loved one. You cannot speak on their behalf. The powers that could intervene, state agencies or others. They cannot act at your direction. If you complain, they are forced to turn a deaf ear. Everything is deferred to the guardian and courts. Suppose you were to dare to fight back against the legal eagles. You would likely face litigation in response. After all, you are entering their realm, the courts. It seems that even when these attorneys face significant judgments or scrutiny, they just go back to business as usual. There is a staggering amount of money at stake. Remember that figure from the beginning of this story, $50 billion in assets are controlled in guardianship in the U.S.
In the summer of 2017, a landmark case should have sent a blow to this lucrative industry. The Palm Beach Post first reported the unprecedented verdict on August 4, 2017. The headline read, “Jury hits lawyers with $16.4M for doing senior wrong in guardianship”. The Friday before, a unanimous jury in the U. S. District Court, West Palm Beach Courthouse, awarded this multi-million-dollar judgment to the Estate of Oliver Wilson Bivins, Sr. The jury determined that West Palm Beach guardianship attorneys, Brian O’Connell and Ashley Crispin of the Ciklin Lubitz & O’Connell law firm, had breached both their professional and fiduciary duties to Oliver Wilson Bivins, Sr., an incapacitated ward. The complaint alleged that they engaged in actions that increased their fees to the detriment of the estate. Throughout the four-year guardianship, the opposing counsel argued that the law firm charged the Bivins estate over $1,000,000 in legal fees while liquidating real estate assets at values detrimental to the estate. It was also found that they entered into self-serving agreements with third parties that failed to serve the best interests of the guardianship estate. The court record reflected that Mr. O’Connell and Ms. Crispin also filed lawsuits against both of Oliver Wilson Bivins Sr. ‘s children. To clarify, the lawyers funded the litigation against the children through the substantial assets of their incapacitated father.
After the verdict, the estate’s lead counsel, Ron Denman, commented, “through the jury verdict, it appears the people of south Florida demand accountability from the lawyers (and guardians) appointed by the legal system to represent the interests, and protect the assets, of its incapacitated citizens.”
If you are following this so far, this is the part where you are probably cheering for this family and giving Ron Denman as the lead counsel a standing ovation. This jury trial verdict was a landmark case; the judgment was substantial and the jury unanimous. Hold your applause. Guardianship is a massive business with huge legal profits. A 16.4-million-dollar decision was a momentary headline that summer. Maybe the entire thing could be described as a minor speed bump. From where I sit, it wasn’t much more. You see, a short time after this verdict, those very same lawyers. Well, they petitioned the court and put my mother into guardianship.
Imagine you were sitting in your home, enjoying your retirement. You hear a knock at your door, and when you answer, you are greeted by someone you don’t know. That person at your door informs you that they now hold your fundamental, unalienable rights. You no longer can pursue your happiness. Your liberty becomes someone else’s call. This person is a professional guardian appointed by a court of law to serve as your decision-maker. You are carted away to a facility. Then your home and assets are sold off to pay for your care. The Netflix smash hit “I Care A lot”, tells this story and features a vape smoking guardian. A simple knock on a door and an older woman is taken from her home and trafficked for profit.
Although the movie itself is a fictional story, the premise is not. Guardians that cherry-pick the elderly for financial schemes is not new news. It’s happening right under our noses. In the movie, the client is referred to as a ‘cherry” by a physician. The physician guides the client to the main character, a professional guardian. It’s an incestuous referral game in fiction and real life. It’s a small world in the community of guardians, lawyers, facility placement pros, home health care providers, and others. These professionals refer elderly clients to each other in real life. The people in the business of servicing the elderly get to know each other in the community. Sometimes they sit on committees or professional boards, side by side. Sometimes they are involved in charitable endeavors. On a surface level, these endeavors serve a vulnerable population. Very often, it’s a team approach when they deal with a client. The professionals all work together, and they all profit. If the characters weren’t unscrupulous, this could be a system that might have real tangible benefits. However, one must remember that greed is a compelling motivator. When there is little regulation, the wolves get into the hen house.
Legislators largely ignore fraudulent guardianship and the abuse of the probate and family court system. Maybe because many politicians are lawyers, or perhaps it’s more sinister. You could point to stories of politicians who have spoken out in support of this movement to test the theory that ignorance is by design. Matt Gaetz is a recent supporter that comes to mind. The storm of headline controversy is plaguing him and making him out to be a monster. It could be related to issues other than this topic. But, when you know this topic the way that I do, you can’t help but speculate. On March 11, 2021, Gaetz spoke out and attempted to persuade Congress to hear this issue.
In March, Matt Gaetz and House Judiciary Ranking Member Jim Jordan asked Congress to probe the process of conservatorships over concerns about their use to deprive Americans of personal freedoms by others through the courts. In their letter, they cited a 2010 GAO report that identified examples of guardians improperly obtaining millions of dollars as well as hundreds of allegations of physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation by guardians in 45 states and the District of Columbia between 1990 and 2010. The letter addressed to House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York continued, “The most striking example is perhaps the case of multi-platinum performing artist Britney Spears.” Just two weeks later, Matt Gaetz became the target of salacious headlines in a “sex” scandal circulating in the mainstream media narrative. It will remain to be seen what happens. There are influential people in powerful places holding purse strings to guardianship assets. There are 50 billion reasons that they would want to silence someone like Matt Gaetz.
Interest in Britney’s conservatorship increased following the February release of the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears. The singer said she spent two weeks crying after watching it herself. Another documentary, produced by the BBC, will air in May and focus on the conservatorship arrangement.
The guardianship process is a misunderstood system. It has a lack of oversight, transparency, and basic protections. Maybe it’s finally time that we were all “woke” to this topic. God knows, American’s waste a whole lot of time being “woke” to other issues. Maybe the power of pop culture will be the tipping point to restore constitutional rights to vulnerable Americans.