Britney Spears’ Dad Is Out Of The Conservatorship, But The Battle Over How He Spent Her Money Is Just Getting Started
“It can be very hard to disentangle the authorized financial decisions from fraud or self-dealing or anything like that, which is a real problem with giving that much power to someone.”
As the #FreeBritney movement was gaining steam in 2019, one fan took aim at Britney Spears’ then-business manager, Lou Taylor, creating a parody website under her name. Jokingly subtitled “Your #1 source for the gay demon exorcist,” www.loumtaylor.com featured various articles that were republished from other sites, including a story about Spears allegedly calling Taylor a “stalker.”
Taylor apparently wasn’t amused, and she filed a lawsuit against Bryan Kuchar, alleging the 32-year-old medical assistant was trying to “exploit Taylor’s fame and goodwill” and damage her reputation. And though Spears wasn’t a party in the lawsuit or even criticized by the fansite, she paid: Her dad, Jamie Spears, authorized $153,759 from her estate to the two Atlanta-based law firms that represented Taylor as well as an unspecified amount to another firm that handled a cease-and-desist letter on Taylor’s behalf, according to court documents.
The site was taken down, and Taylor and Kuchar ultimately reached a confidential settlement in March 2020. But what remains in question is whether Spears should have footed the bills for Taylor; based on the pop star’s own recent statements, she’s thankful for the fans who’ve attacked the conservatorship, and she’s been critical of her management.
“My dad and anyone involved in this conservatorship and my management — who played a huge role in punishing me when I said, ‘No.’ Ma'am, they should be in jail,” Spears told a judge earlier this year.
BuzzFeed News uncovered abuse, neglect, and death across the US guardianship industry. Read our investigative series "Beyond Britney" here.
The ongoing dispute over whether Spears’ money should have covered Taylor’s legal bills is just a preview of the accounting issues that will likely come up as Spears’ legal team tries to claw back funds they believe were used for illegitimate purposes or wasted on legal services that provided no benefit to her. In his investigation, Spears’ attorney Mathew Rosengart has brought on lawyers who focus on fiduciary and estate litigation as well as an expert in fraud and money laundering who previously worked on special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 US election. If they uncover evidence that Jamie Spears misappropriated his daughter’s money or engaged in any other misconduct, Rosengart has said Britney Spears will sue.
“I said at the outset that my firm and I were going to take a top to bottom look at what Jamie Spears and his representatives have done here,” Rosengart told a crowd of #FreeBritney supporters in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 29 after a judge suspended the singer’s father from the conservatorship. “That’s already in process and it will continue for as long as [it takes] … to get justice for Britney.”
On Nov. 12, just weeks before the pop star’s 40th birthday and more than five months after she publicly criticized the arrangement in an explosive public hearing, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny is expected to terminate Spears’ conservatorship. Penny will then consider whether to approve payments to the attorneys who represented Spears, her father, and Jodi Montgomery, the current conservator of Spears’ personal affairs, in the conservatorship at another hearing on Dec. 8. Under state law, Britney Spears has had to pay for both her attorney and her conservators’ attorneys.
The judge will likely also review Jamie Spears’ accounting report detailing the money that went in and came out of his daughter’s estate during 2019. While much of the public version of the report is redacted, documents filed by the singer’s former court-appointed attorney, Sam Ingham, in November 2020 show Spears is raising issues with the payments to cover Taylor’s legal fees and also nearly $400,000 in transactions paid to Taylor’s management company, Tri Star Sports & Entertainment group.
For years, Tri Star had earned a percentage of Spears’ gross income, which topped $100 million during her Las Vegas residency alone. But in 2019, the pop star for the first time under the conservatorship stopped working. According to the court documents, Jamie Spears modified Tri Star’s compensation arrangement late that year, approving — without notifying his daughter, her attorney, or the court — a new $500,000 annual floor after Taylor complained that her company had lost $400,000 as a result of the singer’s work hiatus. As a result of the new arrangement, Jamie Spears paid Tri Star an additional $308,974.51, a payment that Ingham said amounted to “a 260% increase” from what it would have otherwise received that year. Jamie Spears also paid Tri Star another $80,000 for “accounting services” prior to changing the company’s compensation structure, according to the documents.
“These radical new arrangements were made by JAMES without any apparent legal obligation to do so,” Ingham wrote. “There is no indication that he questioned the propriety of TRI STAR’s huge fee increase, attempted to negotiate a more favorable deal, or even requested supporting detail for the ‘time and billing.’”
In court documents, Jamie Spears’ attorneys said his decision to set a new compensation floor was “reasonable” and protected the estate. Their response to Ingham’s questions about the “accounting services” payment is redacted.
In a Nov. 12, 2019, email about the change, Taylor suggested that the $500,000 floor should also apply for 2020, court documents show. According to court documents filed by an attorney for Tri Star on Nov. 5, 2021, the company was paid a prorated amount of $420,891.84 for last year, per the new arrangement. Taylor and Tri Star resigned as Britney Spears’ manager in fall 2020.
An attorney for Taylor and her company did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions.
In more recent filings, Rosengart, who was hired by Spears this July when the court allowed her to retain her own counsel for the first time, has taken aim at the legal fees her father’s attorneys have charged over the last year, as well as the salary that Jamie Spears collected as conservator. Of particular concern is a request by Jamie Spears’ former attorney Vivian Thoreen and her firm Holland & Knight LLP that the estate cover more than $530,000 in fees for dealing with “media matters” between October 2020 and June 2021 — the time period during which the New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears documentary sparked a cascade of public criticism over Jamie Spears’ continued hold over his daughter’s life in spite of her return to a successful music career.
In a July 2021 declaration, Thoreen wrote that dealing with media coverage and inquiries was “an increasingly unavoidable and necessary” part of their work. She said Holland & Knight’s primary goal was “to minimize/protect Ms. Spears, her brand and image, and ultimately, her Estate from potential damage from inaccurate and/or false press and social media coverage.”
But Rosengart argued that the firm instead worked to protect Spears’ father, not Spears herself, and that the publicity around the case was only critical of him and the conservatorship. Shortly after the documentary’s release, Thoreen appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and CNN, telling the networks that “Jamie saved Britney’s life” and he “believes every single decision he has made has been in her best interest.”
“Fees spent trying to defend the reputation of a departing Conservator do not benefit the Conservatee and must not be charged to or collected from the Conservatee’s assets,” Rosengart wrote in a September filing.
Rosengart has also questioned the scope of the work by Thoreen’s firm, which Jamie Spears hired as his “litigation counsel” in October 2020, in addition to his representation by Freeman, Freeman and Smiley LLP. Both legal firms worked on the court filings seeking approval of his legal fees until their resignation last month, following his removal from the conservatorship.
Thoreen and Freeman firm partner Geraldine Wyle did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment, and Jamie Spears’ new attorney also did not respond to questions.
Though Rosengart has vowed to investigate Jamie Spears’ actions since the conservatorship was created in 2008, legal experts told BuzzFeed News it may be difficult to recoup money or obtain recourse for decisions made in the 11 years that the court has already approved accounting reports for. Only money spent in 2019, 2020, and 2021 has yet to be approved by a judge.
“Britney’s team is at a disadvantage,” said Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program. “Her father had this court-approved relationship that gave him a lot of leeway, so it can be very hard to disentangle the authorized financial decisions from fraud or self-dealing or anything like that, which is a real problem with giving that much power to someone.”
In addition to the $16,000 salary and $2,000 allowance for office space that he collected each month during the conservatorship, Jamie Spears also received 1.5% of the gross revenues from his daughter’s four-year Las Vegas residency Britney: Piece of Me, which raked in more than $130 million between 2013 and 2017. He also took in 2.95% of the receipts from her 2011 Femme Fatale tour. Both compensation arrangements were approved by the court, but legal experts told BuzzFeed News they pose an apparent conflict of interest.
“He is charged to look out for her health and well-being while at the same time being paid if she works, no matter how healthy she is,” said Jonathan Martinis, an attorney who has spent years helping people in conservatorships and guardianships get their rights back. “He had a financial interest in pushing her on stage.”
It does not appear that Ingham, who was Britney Spears’ attorney at that time, filed objections to either of her father’s requests for gross receipts from her performances, according to BuzzFeed News’ review of the court records. Martinis, senior director for law and policy in the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, said that while the courts are supposed to closely review requests like these, they often rubber-stamp them if they’re unopposed.
“In my experience, the vast, vast, vast majority of unopposed motions are granted because again, if someone had a problem they’d have objected,” he said. “Unless, of course, they didn’t know they had a right to object.”
Spears may not have known she could object to how her father was paid from her performance income; Rosengart did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions. During her public testimony in June, Spears said she didn’t know that she could file a petition to end the conservatorship, and she described feeling forced to work against her will because of it.
“My management said if I don’t do this tour, I will have to find an attorney, and by contract, my own management could sue me if I didn’t follow through with the tour,” she said. “It was very threatening and scary. And with the conservatorship, I couldn’t even get my own attorney. So out of fear, I went ahead and did the tour.”
Spears’ money may also have been used to spy on her. In the Times’ follow-up documentary, Controlling Britney Spears, a former employee of the pop star’s security team alleged that all communication on her phone was monitored and that an audio recorder was even placed in her bedroom.
When referencing the issue during the Sept. 29 hearing, Rosengart emphasized that, according to the Times’ reporting, Jamie Spears “instructed his security team, which was paid by him from my client’s funds, from my client’s estate” to secretly bug her bedroom.
“Ms. Spears knows about the allegation,” Rosengart told the court. “And imagine the traumatic effect that that has had on her.”
During the hearing, Thoreen, then Jamie Spears’ attorney, dismissed the report, saying the documentary was “not admissible evidence.” She added, “We dispute the allegations.”
In California, it’s illegal to record people’s private conversations without their knowledge or consent, but it’s unclear whether anyone could face criminal charges. People under conservatorships, or guardianships in other states, lose a wide array of civil liberties and rights — including that of privacy.
“Some states literally come out and say that the guardian or conservator has the same power over the person as a parent does over a minor child,” Martinis said. “The rights go away and they get embodied in the conservator or the guardian [who] then has the right to do things like surveil — or thinks they do.”
Though Spears has accused her father of abuse, conservators, or guardians as they’re called in some states, rarely face consequences for allegedly mistreating conservatees or mismanaging their affairs. That’s in part, Brennan-Krohn said, because of a presumption by courts — and by society — that conservators are benevolent actors. The name itself “brings to mind guardian angels,” she said.
Most conservatees don’t have the resources to challenge their conservatorships, let alone pursue civil lawsuits against those authorized to make decisions for them. “It's a relatively underutilized area of law,” Brennan-Krohn said.
But Britney Spears is not like most people. And the international attention on her case could pave the path for others to pursue lawsuits for harm they experienced while in conservatorships, experts said.
Martinis said he hopes that if Spears is able to prove her father mishandled her money, exploited her, or abused her and hold him liable for it, that others in similar positions will know accountability is possible. And perhaps, he said, guardians “think twice before they hurt somebody.”
“Because there was no accountability before,” he added. “Maybe, just maybe because of Britney Spears, there will be accountability now.”
This story has been updated to reflect the amount that Britney Spears' estate paid Tri Star for 2020.