LOS ANGELES — After 13 years, Britney Spears is free of her conservatorship.
On Friday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny ended the court-ordered arrangement.
"The conservatorship of the person and estate of Britney Jean Spears is no longer required," Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny said, according to the New York Times.
Spears' long-term battle for her freedom is credit to what ABC10 found in our ongoing investigation, The Price of Care, that conservatorships are incredibly difficult to terminate for all, even a superstar. There's many reasons behind that, including expensive legal fees and the way the legal system and probate courts are set up, allowing a conservatorship to remain in place likely for the remainder of a conserved person's life.
The outcome of Spears' hearing is a victory for both her, as well as change within the system. But little, if any, change has occurred prior to Spears. So, why did it take the princess of pop to transform what many believe is a broken system?
Many credit the podcast, Britneysgram turned Toxic: The Britney Spears Story for shining a light on Spears' conservatorship and how she was being controlled. The podcast was created by two comedians who analyzed her Instagram account.
"While at first it was kind of a joke, over-analyzing it, it actually became very serious when we realized the mechanics of the conservatorship and what was going on," cohost Babs Gray said.
Gray and her cohost Tess Barker took a more serious interest after Spears cancelled her Las Vegas residency, would disappear from the public eye for a prolonged amount of time and saw a co-conservator receive a large raise while attending one of Spears' conservatorship hearings.
"We got a voicemail from a paralegal who worked with one of the lawyers that worked on her conservatorship case and he said, 'You guys are onto something'," Gray said. "That kind of blew everything up."
Their initiative led to a powerful and unexpected whirlwind that the Free Britney movement is credited for: a crusade of fans advocating for justice on behalf of Spears.
"It's incredible. I was just looking at some photos of some of the first Free Britney rallies... and it's just a handful of people," Gray said. "It has grown into [this] worldwide movement."
Through it all, a spotlight has been put on conservatorships, educating many for the first time on what exactly they are and how powerful they can be.
"This is where a situation where people saw an injustice, refused to be quiet about it, even in the face of being called conspiracy theorists, and just were very insistent about keeping this issue at the forefront of the public conscious," Barker said. "As a result of that, in the last two years, we've seen actual legislative change happen because of the Free Britney movement."
California State Assemblymember Evan Low drafted AB 1194, a bill signed by Governor Newsom that will become law on January 1, 2022, which aims at reforming multiple areas of conservatorships including the right for conserved people to choose their own legal counsel, probate code, regulations around probate courts as well as the Professional Fiduciary Bureau.
"I must confess, this issue was put back onto our radar when the Free Britney documentary was released," Assemblymember Low said as he introduced the bill to the California Assembly Business and Professions Committee, a committee tasked with overseeing the Professional Fiduciary Bureau.
But conservatorships aren't new.
In fact, in California alone, fiduciaries — the third-party appointed by courts to serve as conservator when family members aren't chosen — are responsible for handling over $13 billion of other people's money.
So, why have conservatorships been in the dark until Spears?
"The sad truth is that a lot of people that are affected by conservatorship abuse are people that are sort of invisible in our society: disabled people, older people," Barker said.
"Obviously, Britney has millions of fans across the world, so I don't know if she ever necessarily wanted to become a poster child for something in this situation," Gray said. "While I wish it hadn't taken her being in this situation, I think there's a silver lining to it."
Spears herself has thanked the Free Britney movement saying in-part in an Instagram post, "Because of you guys and your constant resilience in freeing me from my conservatorship... my life is now in that direction."
She and her fiancé also posted an Instagram video of the couple sporting t-shirts with #FreeBritney the evening before her Nov. 12, hearing. For every hearing, hundreds of fans and Free Britney advocates have gathered outside of the Los Angeles probate court.
"It is peculiar, isn't it, that people are marching in the streets who've never met this person and never will," Professor Frank McAndrew said.
McAndrew is a professor of psychology at Knox University who has extensively studied the psychology behind our love of celebrities. He said our interest in other people's lives evolved ions ago and helped with survival.
"To be successful in those early human groups, you had to know everything about everybody. You had to know who you could trust. You have to know who was going to cheat you if you got into a relationship with them. You had to know who had powerful friends," McAndrew said. "And so, people who were interested in that stuff did better than people who just didn't care. And those genes came down through centuries to us. So, we're the descendants of busy bodies."
But with the development of mass media, we now know more about celebrities than our next door neighbors.
"We develop what's called para-social relationships with these people. It's one-sided," McAndrew said. "I know all about them and I care about them, they don't know about me or care about me. But it doesn't change the fact that I like some of them more than I like others."
Specifically in the last 20 years, the development of social media has changed how fans connect.
"So, you can form a community of people who can talk about this celebrity to each other, very quickly," McAndrew said.
Specifically for Britney Spears and the Free Britney movement, McAndrew narrowed it to three main things that make her case especially fascinating to the public. The first was intrigue.
"The Britney Spears case has all the sorted ingredients that make it really interesting. You have a father essentially exploiting the daughter," McAndrew said. "It sucks us in because we all had fathers or mothers and we all have this sense of security we can count on them and this turns that all upside down. So, it's hard to not pay attention to because we need to understand it. It's hard to wrap your head around it."
McAndrew's second cause of fascination was a sense of belonging.
"Suddenly, there's this group of people that care about what you do. And that creates an instant bond," McAndrew said. "You join these people, you communicate with these people and they reinforce your view of the world."
And the third reason for many, was this was the first time they've learned about conservatorships and how they can be victimizing.
"Because this is new to them and kind of shocking that a grown, successful woman can have so little freedom to make decisions in her own life that this moral outrage drives them," McAndrew said.
During ABC10's two-year investigation into conservatorships, Investigative Reporter Andie Judson spoke with dozens of families and experts involved in these legal fights and asked some of them about the Britney Spears case.
"It's bittersweet. I mean it's sweet in a sense like for the first time, you're seeing a much more high-profile case and the word or the language and the visibility around conservatorships are out there so people are now educating themselves. So, I think that's great," James Bùi said. "At the same time it's very bitter because, I'll be frank, I'm sure the Spears family has a lot of resources and gets the time of day. We've had to fight through years of this. Other families even longer."
"If I saw Britney, I'd want to give her a hug, because if that is the way that this had to come about... that someone as young, as successful, with all her financial means and her recognition around the world," Sharon Holmes said. "It could happen to anybody."
"I think she's really shown how complicated the system is and how challenging it is to get out of these," said Barbara Imle.
"My hope is people start to get this is a big problem," said Joseph Parisio. "This Britney Spears they see, there's hundreds and hundreds of people that aren't famous, that nobody knows about. Because they're not famous, everybody says, 'No big deal.'"
But members of the Free Britney movement say it's bigger than just Britney Spears and that their work is far from over, with Spears being just the start of their reform efforts.
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