If you follow Britney Spears on Instagram, you’re probably used to seeing her post a mix of filtered selfies, free-spirited dance videos, inspirational quotes and photos with her boyfriend, personal trainer Sam Asghari. But you’ve also probably noticed there’s a lot more going on with the pop icon, especially over the last few years, as legal battles and online protests have shed light on her perceived independence.
Ever since 2008, Spears’ person and finances have largely been managed by her father and a lawyer, which has spawned a vocal, often conspiratorial, online movement calling to #FreeBritney. If you’ve seen the hashtag, worried about her current situation or wondered what the future might hold for the Toxic singer, here’s what you need to know about Spears’ conservatorship and the #FreeBritney movement.
What’s going on with Britney and when did it begin?
During the nearly 30 years she’s spent living in the public eye, Spears has faced a number of highly publicized ups and downs. But in the wake of canceling her Las Vegas residency in January 2019 and checking into a mental health facility a few months later, she has frequently made headlines for one specific reason: her conservatorship.
Since Spears’ career took off when she was still a child—at 11, she was famously cast on The Mickey Mouse Club alongside fellow future pop stars Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera—her parents were heavily involved in her work life from an early age. But it wasn’t until the conservatorship was put in place that her father gained legal control over her affairs as an adult.
Spears’ conservatorship, a legal guardianship designed for those who can’t take care of themselves or manage their own finances, was put in place in 2008 after the singer suffered a prolonged public breakdown involving a series of incidents, including shaving her head and attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. That led to multiple stints in rehab, two separate hospitalizations under psychiatric holds and losing custody of her two sons to ex-husband Kevin Federline. (Federline and Spears now split custody 70/30, with Federline designated as the kids’ primary caregiver.)
The court-approved conservatorship gave Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, and attorney Andrew Wallet authority over her finances and many aspects of her personal life, with filings citing Britney suffered from an undisclosed mental illness and substance abuse. Some aspects of the conservatorship have changed over the years, but Spears’ father remains at the center, having served as conservator of both her person and estate.
Recent attempts by Spears to remove her father as conservator, coupled with rampant fan theories about the singer’s personal struggles, have ignited the #FreeBritney movement, a fan-driven push to restore Spears’ autonomy. This online protest has garnered support from celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Paris Hilton and Rose McGowan. Proponents of #FreeBritney say that Spears is being exploited under the conservatorship—but the movement is largely fueled by unverified claims and conspiracies about Spears’ life circulating online.
What’s the current status of Britney Spears’ conservatorship?
To understand what’s currently happening with Spears’ conservatorship, we have to go back to early 2019. That March, two months after Spears canceled her Las Vegas Domination residency and announced an “indefinite work hiatus,” Wallet abruptly resigned from his position as co-conservator alongside Spears’ father.
Wallet did not provide a specific reason for his resignation but wrote in court filings that the “conservatorship is engaged in numerous ongoing business activities requiring immediate attention” and it was therefore in Spears’ best interest that his resignation be accepted without delay. “Substantial detriment, irreparable harm and immediate danger will result to the conservatee and her estate if the relief requested herein is not granted,” the filings added.
This left Jamie Spears, who was suffering from health issues after rupturing his colon in November 2018, as sole conservator.
In September 2019, citing his health troubles, Jamie temporarily relinquished control of Britney’s person to her care manager, Jodi Montgomery, while maintaining control of Britney’s finances. The switch-up came in the wake of Federline filing a police report over an alleged physical altercation between Jamie and Britney’s then-13-year-old son Sean Preston Federline. Britney’s sons were then granted a restraining order against their grandfather.
Britney’s mother, Lynne Spears, who is divorced from Jamie, also made attempts to get involved in the conservatorship in 2019. In May, she filed a legal motion to be kept informed of all matters regarding her daughter’s medical condition, according to court filings obtained by CNN.
Montgomery’s stint as co-conservator is set to end in September 2021, but the situation grew more complicated over the course of 2020.
Early in 2020, a Los Angeles county judge extended the conservatorship twice—once in February until April 30 and then again through Aug. 22—prior to Britney’s attempts to remove Jamie as conservator. The second extension was handed down around the same time that Britney shared a video on Instagram revealing that she had accidentally burned down her home gym —a post that sparked alarm among some fans.
Although Britney said on Instagram that candles were the cause of the fire, some fans speculated, with no evidence, that she had purposefully set fire to the gym as a distress signal.
In August, Britney asked the courts to remove Jamie as conservator of both her personal affairs and finances, requesting that Montgomery be permanently installed as conservator of her person and that a “qualified corporate fiduciary” replace Jamie as head of her estate. Instead, a judge, whose findings remain under seal, ruled to extend the current version of the conservatorship, with Montgomery acting as temporary co-conservator, through Feb. 1, 2021.
In an Aug. 17 court filing, Britney’s attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, stated that Britney is “strongly opposed” to Jamie returning as conservator of her person and continuing as sole conservator of her estate. The next day, Jamie filed a petition to have Wallet reinstated as co-conservator of Britney’s finances—a move that Britney’s lawyers opposed, calling Wallet “uniquely unsuitable” for the role. Court filings stated that Britney would not be able to afford Wallet as a conservator due to her decision not to perform.
“Apart from the fact that Mr. Wallet has been extremely expensive in the past, based on what occurred over the 11 years he served as her co-conservator, there is no reason to believe that Mr. Wallet will be able to work with Britney to explain and implement any difficult budgetary choices that must be made,” the filings read.
Britney’s attorney also filed court documents on Sept. 2 arguing against sealing future conservatorship court hearings and addressing the support of Britney’s fans.
“At this point in her life when she is trying to regain some measure of personal autonomy, Britney welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans,” Ingham wrote. “Although the sealing motion is supposedly for her ‘protection,’ Britney herself is vehemently opposed to this effort by her father to keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret.”
Jamie withdrew the petition to reappoint Wallet in October and the lawyer told the Daily Mail that the conservatorship is in Britney’s “best interests” and that many supporters of #FreeBritney have jumped to conclusions.
“Their perception is so wrong but you can’t go and tell them why because a lot of it is confidential,” Wallet said. “This movement on social media has definitely complicated matters. There are people lurking in the shadows pushing an agenda. I can’t say who but it is hurting Britney, she’s the only one who gets hurt by all this.”
On Oct. 28, Britney reportedly learned through a letter from Jamie’s lawyer that her longtime business manager, Lou Taylor, had resigned and been replaced without her knowledge. And at a Nov. 10 hearing, a California judge once again denied Britney’s request to remove Jamie as conservator. “My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father,” Ingham told the judge. “She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career.”
The judge agreed to appoint Bessemer Trust, a corporate fiduciary, as co-conservator of Britney’s estate alongside Jamie and said that she would consider future petitions for his suspension or removal.
As Britney’s efforts to change the structure of her conservatorship have ramped up, the #FreeBritney movement has also gained steam. Here’s how Britney’s fans have responded to the ongoing controversy.
Why is the #FreeBritney movement gaining steam?
Though the #FreeBritney movement has reportedly been around since 2009, it didn’t garner widespread attention until April 2019.
At that time, a fan podcast called Britney’s Gram aired audio of a voicemail from an alleged former paralegal for an attorney who worked with Spears’ conservatorship claiming, among other things, that the singer’s March 2019 stay at a mental health facility was involuntary.
The unverified claims in the podcast fueled speculation among fans that Spears was being mistreated, prompting an April 2019 public demonstration in Los Angeles where protestors demanded her release from the treatment facility.
Spears herself seemingly debunked the rumors on Instagram.
“I am trying to take a moment for myself, but everything that’s happening is just making it harder for me. Don’t believe everything you read and hear,” she captioned a video message. “Your love and dedication is amazing, but what I need right now is a little bit of privacy to deal with all the hard things that life is throwing my way. If you could do that, I would be forever grateful. Love you.”
Her message did little to quell the #FreeBritney movement and unverified speculation has only grown among some fans.
Some believe that Spears now uses her Instagram to send coded cries for help, citing Britney’s emoji use and other details of her posts. Fans have zeroed in on everything from what Spears is wearing to how many times she blinks when examining her posts for clues about her supposed distress. After the singer wore a yellow top in a July Instagram, over 384,000 fans liked a tweet speculating that she had done so because, on a previous post, a follower had commented asking her to wear the color to signal that she needed help.
When Spears’ mom liked several Instagram posts with the #FreeBritney hashtag, as well as a comment asking that Britney’s mom support the conservatorship’s end, it only fueled the movement’s fire.
In September 2019, a three-month Los Angeles Times investigation reportedly found no evidence that the conservatorship was detrimental to Spears’ well-being, although they seemed to have trouble getting information from those close to Spears: “The Los Angeles Times spent three months examining Spears’ conservatorship and reaching out to those who might have seen firsthand how it has affected her; no one in her inner circle responded to requests for comment. The paper could find no independent evidence that Spears was being harmed by the arrangement.”
But past comments by Spears, and her push to remove her father as conservator have continued to create concern from fans. In the 2008 MTV documentary Britney: For the Record, Spears said that the “restraints” on her life were worse than a jail sentence.
“Even when you go to jail, y’know, there’s the time when you’re gonna get out. But in this situation, it’s never ending,” she said. “It’s just like [the movie] Groundhog Day.”
Fellow celebrities have spoken out in support of Britney as well. In September 2020, Paris Hilton told Andy Cohen on his SiriusXM radio show that she felt Spears should have control over her life, noting that she had seen Spears over the summer but hadn’t directly spoken about the conservatorship with her. “I love her so much and I just feel if you’re an adult you should be able to live your life and not be controlled,” Hilton said. “After just working her whole life and working so hard…she’s just this icon. I just feel like she has no control of her life whatsoever and I just don’t think that’s fair.”
In a July 2020 Instagram post about the late actor Brittany Murphy, Rose McGowan also weighed in on #FreeBritney. “There’s another Britney on my mind today, too, one that is alive, one that can be saved from the leaches that are controlling and trafficking her. Free all the Britneys and all those who get hurt by the trauma of Hollywood values and toxic ‘rules.'”
In addition to its celebrity supporters, the #FreeBritney movement has also received a co-sign from the American Civil Liberties Union, which publicly announced its support for Spears’ autonomy in August.
“People with disabilities have a right to lead self-directed lives and retain their civil rights,” the organization tweeted. “If Britney Spears wants to regain her civil liberties and get out of her conservatorship, we are here to help her.”
However, some close to Spears have spoken out in support of the conservatorship. In May 2019, her longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, who is not involved in the conservatorship, told the Washington Post that there are legitimate reasons the arrangement is in place.
“The last thing any California state judge wants is to do something incorrectly and inappropriately and be the subject of a story about a judge that has done something wrong by Britney Spears,” he said. “The conservatorship is not a jail. It helps Britney make business decisions and manage her life in ways she can’t do on her own right now.”
The situation is further complicated by the unfounded, unverified claims perpetuated by supporters of the #FreeBritney movement. Some fans have said Spears’ father claimed she had dementia to secure the conservatorship, while some have spread that the arrangement prohibits Spears from having more children. The prevalence of these conspiracy theories only makes it more difficult to sort fact from fiction for those with a casual knowledge of the matter.
What comes next?
As far as the legal proceedings surrounding Spears’ conservatorship go, at a Dec. 16, 2020 hearing on the case, a judge ruled to extend the arrangement until Sept. 3, 2021. However, there are three new hearings, including one to assess how Jamie has managed Britney’s finances, set to take place before then, the LA Times reports.
Ahead of the Dec. 16 hearing, Jamie told CNN that he hadn’t spoken to Britney since she filed to remove him as conservator in August. “I love my daughter and I miss her very much,” he said. “When a family member needs special care and protection, families need to step up, as I have done for the last 12-plus years, to safeguard, protect and continue to love Britney unconditionally. I have and will continue to provide unwavering love and fierce protection against those with self-serving interests and those who seek to harm her or my family.”
A virtual #FreeBritney rally was held in conjunction with the December hearing, reportedly attracting over 500 supporters from around the world to a group Zoom call.
“Britney doesn’t deserve this,” reform advocate Venus Gist said during the meeting. “Whatever struggle she’s had in her past, she deserves to enjoy her children and her money. She needs our support. It just shows us there’s a spectrum: Whether you’re very wealthy or low-income, you can be a victim to this probate court system.”
The Times reports that #FreeBritney organizers plan to hold similar events to support Spears going forward.