After nearly 14 years, Britney Spears no longer is under the constraints of a conservatorship and is free to make personal and business decisions for herself for the first time since the legal arrangement was instituted in 2008 — but the Nov. 12 ruling in her favor doesn’t mean her fight is finished.
Spears and her attorney Mathew Rosengart have made it clear they’re going to investigate abuse and financial mismanagement she alleges occurred during the conservatorship and hold her father, Jamie Spears, and others accountable for any wrongdoing they discover. “I’m going to be watching to see what is the next petition that is filed. Britney is seeking accountability for all of the violations and breaches of the fiduciary duties [such as] the surveillance allegations and reproductive rights decisions,” says Benny Roshan, chair of Greenberg Glusker’s trusts and probate litigation group. “The easiest thing for her to do is to object to all of the fees for the various agents who are asking the court for approval.”
A Jan. 19 hearing is scheduled to address the pending 12th accounting, a typically routine annual proceeding during which the court reviews expenses tied to the conservatorship and determines whether they should be approved. It’s not a rubber stamp by any means, but probate litigators say courts tend to be deferential to professionals and ensure they get paid reasonable fees for the work they’ve done.
“All of their bills are contingent on court approval,” says Vatche Zetjian of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell, an attorney who specializes in estate, trust and probate law. “Generally speaking, courts don’t want to be denying fees and creating disincentives for qualified professionals taking conservatorships.”
That said, he adds, “If there was misconduct, the court can deny fees.”
Jamie Spears, through his attorneys, has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and insists that any actions he took were within his authority as conservator of her estate.
Also currently at issue are fees charged after that pending accounting period by law firms that (separately) represented Jamie and Lynne Spears, which total more than $2 million, as well as compensation that Jamie is requesting for his work as conservator of Britney’s estate. In a March 26 filing, he asked for “$16,000 monthly plus $2,000 monthly for the cost of an office space in a secure location that is dedicated to Ms. Spears’ activities” for his services from Nov. 1, 2019, through Feb. 28, 2021.
“Disputes over fiduciary compensation are a lightning rod for any hard feelings or animosity between parties,” says Matthew Kanin, an attorney at Greenspoon Marder who specializes in estate planning, trust and probate law. “Ms. Spears might have a pretty strong motive to oppose those fee requests and maybe even ask for past fees to be repaid to her.”
Generally, once an accounting is approved, it’s nearly impossible to challenge financial decisions made during that time period, as they’ve already been formally blessed by the court. But Kanin notes that a Sept. 7 California appellate decision — one that reversed a ruling by Judge Brenda Penny in another matter — may have made Spears’ battle to challenge pre-2019 financials slightly less uphill. “The bar to relitigation is an obstacle, but it’s gotten a lot less absolute,” Kanin says. “The court of appeals said finality is important, but if there’s evidence a fiduciary misled the court, we’re not going to let them get away with it.”
The appellate court found the provision of the probate code that releases conservators from claims arising from approved orders doesn’t apply if the “order is obtained by fraud or conspiracy or by misrepresentation.” Further, it held, “a party bringing a subsequent action on behalf of the conservatee does not need to show that the misrepresentation could not have been discovered prior to entry of the order approving the account.”
The biggest looming question is, now that Spears has regained control of her personal and business decisions, how far does she want to take this fight? “She’s going to have direct input on how aggressively to pursue the accounting-related matters and some of the allegations she previously raised,” says Zetjian. “Is Britney going to challenge the accounting and raise surcharge issues and continue full speed ahead or try to come up with some kind of agreement to get this done and over with?”