Judge Frees Britney Spears From Father’s Control


For more than a decade, Britney Spears bristled behind closed doors at the court-approved control her father, James P. Spears, held over her life and fortune.

Now, for the first time since 2008, Ms. Spears, 39, will be without her father’s oversight, a Los Angeles judge has ruled, as the singer moves toward terminating her conservatorship altogether.

At a hearing on Wednesday, Judge Brenda Penny granted a petition by Ms. Spears’s lawyer, suspending Mr. Spears, 69, from his position as overseer of his daughter’s $60 million estate — a move Ms. Spears was pleading for, her lawyer said.

“This man does not belong in her life, your honor, for another day,” Mathew S. Rosengart, who took over as the singer’s lawyer in July, argued in court. “Please hear the plea of my client.” He said that it would be a “disaster” for Mr. Spears to remain in her life.

Lawyers for Mr. Spears said that the conservatorship should be ended instead, calling his record as conservator “impeccable.” But after hearing from both sides, the judge agreed that suspending Mr. Spears was in his daughter’s best interest. “The current situation is not tenable,” Judge Penny said.

She named a California accountant, John Zabel, as the temporary conservator of the singer’s finances, as Mr. Rosengart had requested.

The major decision in Los Angeles Superior Court — which was greeted with cheers from Ms. Spears’s supporters outside — capped a whirlwind summer in the 13-year conservatorship, after the singer broke her public silence at a hearing in June, calling the arrangement abusive and exploitative, and bringing even more attention to the unusual and closely watched case.

“I am traumatized,” Ms. Spears said in court at the time, asking for those overseeing the conservatorship to be investigated and jailed, and singling out her father as “the one who approved all of it.”

The conservatorship was established in 2008, after Mr. Spears sought control over his pop-star daughter’s life and business, citing her mental health struggles and substance abuse.

In a drastic role reversal at the hearing on Wednesday, a lawyer for Mr. Spears, Vivian Lee Thoreen, who had been among the conservatorship’s fiercest defenders, argued to terminate it right away instead of suspending her client, while Ms. Spears’s lawyer asked the judge to wait in order for him to further investigate Mr. Spears’s conduct.

Although Mr. Spears had long maintained that the arrangement was voluntary and necessary to protect his daughter’s well-being — crediting the conservatorship with saving her life and revitalizing her career — he filed earlier this month to end it entirely, citing Ms. Spears’s wishes and recent shows of independence. (Ms. Spears said in June that she had not known she could move to end it.)

Ms. Thoreen said in court that suspending Mr. Spears as conservator was unnecessary because everyone agreed the conservatorship should end. But Mr. Rosengart, who had said in court filings that Ms. Spears consented to winding down the arrangement, argued that Mr. Spears was seeking to avoid having to turn over records from the conservatorship, including 13 years of financial information.

Mr. Rosengart instead asked the judge to set a hearing in 30 to 45 days to discuss terminating the conservatorship. “My client wants, my client needs, my client deserves an orderly transition,” the lawyer said. The next hearing in the case was scheduled for Nov. 12.

Mr. Spears could be removed entirely as conservator on that date, or at another hearing to determine whether he failed to fulfill the responsibility for a variety of reasons cited in the law, including mismanaging the estate or “gross immorality.” The court set an additional hearing for Dec. 8 to tie up outstanding financial matters, including more than $1 million in legal fees billed to the estate.

The peaceful public facade of the Britney Spears machine began to crumble in recent years, as the singer stepped back from working and a court-appointed lawyer who represented her since 2008 began seeking substantial changes to the arrangement, including the removal of her father.

Then, in June, Ms. Spears shattered any perception of harmony among the parties. “I’ve been in denial. I’ve been in shock,” she said in court, detailing claims that she had been drugged and made to work against her will, while being prevented from removing her birth control device.

The singer’s father, in calling for an investigation into her claims, denied that he was responsible for her treatment, instead calling into question the actions of Jodi Montgomery, Ms. Spears’s current personal conservator, and others.

But following her remarks in court, Ms. Spears, who was found at the outset to be incapable of hiring her own lawyer and instead assigned one, was allowed to choose her own representation for the first time in July. Mr. Rosengart has since pushed to remove the singer’s father from the equation as he moved toward terminating the conservatorship entirely this fall.

But lawyers for Mr. Spears filed this month to end the conservatorship first. Mr. Rosengart called the move “vindication” for Ms. Spears, although he raised the possibility that the singer’s father was attempting to “avoid accountability and justice, including sitting for a sworn deposition and answering other discovery under oath.”

In court documents, the lawyer also cited Ms. Spears’s recent engagement to her longtime boyfriend, arguing that her father should not be involved in the creation of a prenuptial agreement. On Wednesday, Sam Asghari, the singer’s fiancé, celebrated the decision on Instagram. “Free Britney!” he wrote. “Congratulations!!!!!!!!!”

Previously, in August, lawyers for Mr. Spears had said he would step aside as conservator eventually, but did not provide a timeline, calling for “an orderly transition to a new conservator.”

In addition to calling for an investigation of Mr. Spears’s behavior, Mr. Rosengart has questioned Mr. Spears’s financial management of the singer’s estate, including the size of his salary as conservator, “unwarranted commissions” and “potential self-dealing.”

Recent reporting by The New York Times revealed that Ms. Spears had long questioned Mr. Spears’s fitness as conservator, citing his drinking and “obsession” with her. This month in “Controlling Britney Spears,” a documentary by The Times, a former security firm employee said that under the conservatorship, the singer was tracked by an intense surveillance apparatus that secretly captured audio recordings from her bedroom and material from her phone.

Recording conversations in a private place and mirroring text messages without the consent of both parties can be a violation of the law. It is unclear if the court overseeing Ms. Spears’s conservatorship approved the surveillance or knew of its existence.

Ms. Spears’s lawyer asked the court to look into the claims and raised the allegations in court on Wednesday, calling it “unfathomable” to eavesdrop on some of the “most intimate communications of my client.”

Mr. Rosengart said he believed that was what spurred Mr. Spears’s 180-degree turn to suddenly wanting to terminate the conservatorship, adding: “What he’s afraid of is the revelation of his corruption.” A lawyer for Mr. Spears said that the information from the documentary should not be considered evidence.

Outside the courtroom, the singer’s fans reacted to the ruling with hugs and tears. “They thought we were crazy. They thought she was crazy,” said Robert Bordelon, 25, who was the first to tell the crowd the decision had been made.

Angelique Fawcette, 51, an activist who helped organize the “unity rally,” said the suspension had larger implications. “It means so much for the hundreds of thousands of people who are locked into conservatorships,” she said, “both legal and illegal.”

Joe Coscarelli reported from New York, and Julia Jacobs and Liz Day from Los Angeles. Lauren Herstik, Douglas Morino and Samantha Stark contributed reporting from Los Angeles.



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