Britney Spears’ Capacity Called Into Question as Lawyer Defends Lack of Direct Testimony
A legal battle over who should oversee the star's conservatorship has fueled the #FreeBritney fire.
Fans behind the #FreeBritney movement grew louder this summer as headlines sparked by probate court proceedings stoked their belief that Britney Spears should be released from the conservatorship she’s been living under since 2008. On Wednesday, the singer’s court-appointed lawyer told an L.A. judge she lacks the capacity to sign a declaration expressing her wishes and compared her to a “comatose” person.
Since August, attorney Samuel Ingham has fueled the #FreeBritney flames with headline-grabbing legal filings claiming she didn’t want her father, Jamie Spears, to be solely in charge of her conservatorship and that he was trying to keep the dispute secret by asking the court to seal records.
One piece of news seemed largely ignored by those calling for Britney’s emancipation: It was revealed in an Aug. 31 filing by Ingham that the conservatorship is voluntary. If the singer wants out, Ingham can file the paperwork. Of course, it wouldn’t be simple or quick. There would likely be an evaluation of whether she has the capacity to make such a decision — especially now that Ingham has called it into question in court — and whether she’s capable of managing her affairs without being subject to undue influence.
Still, accusations that Jamie was effectively holding the singer legally hostage continued to gain traction with fans this summer after Ingham, in an Aug. 17 filing, indicated Britney no longer wanted her father to be the sole conservator of her estate and was “strongly opposed” to him being reinstated as the conservator of her person.
Ingham described Britney’s conservatorship as having three phases. During the first “triage” phase, “her conservators rescued her from a collapse, exploitation by predatory individuals and financial ruin.” Next came the time when she was actively performing again and “with the aid of a personal manager, a business manager and many other individuals, BRITNEY was able to regain her position as a world-class entertainer with multiple world tours, a television series and a residency in Las Vegas.” The third and current phase, he says, reflects Britney’s desire not to perform, and he argues “the conservatorship must be changed substantially in order to reflect the major changes in her current lifestyle and her stated wishes.” He also noted, in underlined font, that Britney was requesting the adjustments “without in any way waiving her right to seek termination of this conservatorship in the future.”
In response, Jamie requested that Andrew Wallet, who served as co-conservator for more than a decade until he stepped away in March 2019, be reappointed. Ingham filed a request to instead appoint a company called Bessemer Trust, and asked the court to appoint a litigation team from Loeb & Loeb. (He also claims Wallet overcharged and was given a “golden parachute” when he exited, though Jamie disputes those allegations.)
The additional party, whoever it is, would oversee Britney’s business interests alongside Jamie. That includes things like hiring attorneys and agents, managing investments, paying bills and pursuing professional commitments provided they’re approved by Britney’s medical team.
Her personal matters are supervised by Jodi Montgomery, who took over the role of conservator of the person in September 2019 after Jamie relinquished it amid health problems. She can restrict visitors, retain caretakers and communicate with medical professionals, including those providing psychiatric care. (Ingham’s petition to appoint Bessemer would also require Montgomery’s sign-off on any professional commitments.)
On Oct. 2, Jamie withdrew his request to appoint Wallet and filed an opposition to the request to appoint litigation counsel. According to those filings, Jamie thought litigation (and an additional team of lawyers) would be an excessive and unnecessary expense and insisted he’s only after Britney’s best interests. He believes the proper course of action is to convene with Ingham and his daughter to “come up with the most efficient and effective structure which includes a corporate fiduciary, taking into account the many complex factors of her Estate, including without limitation, facilitating her return to work sometime in the future at such time as she wishes to do so.”
In a response filing, Ingham insists that litigation counsel is still necessary because they’ve already had multiple failed meet-and-confers, and he doesn’t believe Jamie will concede to the appointment of Bessemer Trust, arguing, “His counsel are always welcome to pick up the phone to discuss a resolution, but BRITNEY should not be obligated to forego qualified legal representation as the price of the call.”
Prior to that withdrawal, there had been a fight over how much of the proceedings should be public. Jamie on Aug. 19 filed a motion to seal pleadings and transcripts related to the appointment of a co-conservator on the grounds that they would contain “details relating to Ms. Spears’ private health and medical information, Ms. Spears’ attorney-client privileged information, personal and private information relating to Ms. Spears and her minor children, as well as Ms. Spears’ trade secrets and proprietary information.”
Ingham fought it, arguing that his client was “adamantly opposed” to the sealing, that there were “no medical issues at all in a conservatorship of the estate” and that it was merely an effort to “keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret.” He also said that Britney wants her fans to be informed. That, understandably, resulted in a demand for transparency from said fans.
Jamie responded by noting that Ingham hadn’t attached any proof of what he says is Britney’s opinion and emphasized the potential harm that could occur if sensitive information were to become public, specifically information related to her health, her capacity to make informed decisions, her business relationships and the potential effects of any changes to the conservatorship on her and her children.
Despite the court issuing a tentative ruling to reject the sealing request, Ingham backed off and the parties suggested the court hold off on ruling until a later hearing that would address the appointment of a co-conservator.
While the motives of Jamie and various others in Britney’s inner circle are regularly challenged by fans, few seem to be questioning Ingham — even as he could potentially collect more than half a million dollars in legal fees this year.
His fees, which are subject to court oversight, amounted to nearly $375,000 in 2019 and could be as much as $520,000 by the end of 2020. He’s currently capped at $10,000 per week, an amount that was recently re-approved by the court after Ingham complained that he wasn’t being paid, but could request additional funds if his fees exceed that cap given the amount of recent activity in the matter. For the period between Aug. 17 and Sept. 5, around the time the dispute over the co-conservator began making headlines, Ingham was paid $37,000. (Jamie’s fee as conservator of the estate is set at $2,500 a week.)
On Wednesday, the parties appeared remotely before judge Brenda J. Penny. It has been reported, and THR has independently confirmed, that Ingham’s statements purportedly relaying Britney’s wishes are raising concerns over hearsay because she hasn’t submitted a declaration in support of those claims. In response, Ingham indicated that his client lacks the capacity to sign a declaration and argued that if he were representing a “comatose” client he’d be allowed to convey that person’s wishes without a declaration.
In response to an email asking whether Britney has ever asked him to start the process of ending the conservatorship or if he would request that the results of any independent medical examination be sealed, Ingham said he can’t comment on a pending case.
The parties have been asked to file briefs regarding the issue of “capacity to execute a verified declaration” later this month, and a hearing is currently set for Nov. 10.
This article originally appeared in THR.com.