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Britney Spears and Amanda Bynes: How the public diverged on their conservatorship cases

In a tale of two high-profile conservatorships, one dominated headlines, while the other didn’t get much attention.
Illustration of a Free Britney Spears group and a photo of Amanda Bynes.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

A judge issued a tentative ruling Tuesday to extend Amanda Bynes' conservatorship until 2023, a development that offers a stark contrast to Britney Spears' ongoing battle to be free from her father’s oversight.

In a tale of two high-profile conservatorships, one dominated headlines, while the other didn’t get much attention. Some experts say that has to do with star power, and how the cases have separately evolved.

“[Amanda Bynes] was a big deal, you know, among child stars who had Disney Channel shows, which is actually never at the level of popularity, fame that Britney achieved,” said Howard Breuer, CEO of Newsroom PR and former staff writer at People magazine. “You could say, ‘Well they were both young kind of child stars, had this pressure, and they wound up in these obviously overlapping conservatorships,’ but there's a lot of differences there.”

Spears’ fans have launched protests to #FreeBritney, which resulted in documentaries and numerous headlines. A Free Britney L.A. Instagram account has more than 95,000 followers, with its oldest post dating back to July 2020.

Bynes’ case has faded more quietly into the background. A Free Bynes Twitter account, created last month, has just over 460 followers.

Spears was placed under her father’s authority by the California court system in 2008, following a public breakdown captured by paparazzi. Her father filed a petition last week for the Los Angeles County Superior Court to terminate her conservatorship, after the singer openly criticized his control over her in court this year.

Bynes, a former child actor turned starlet in the early 2000s, has been in a conservatorship under her own parents since 2013, following a dark period of her life fueled by substance abuse.

She was profiled in Paper magazine in 2018, her last major interview, where she opened up about four years of sobriety and the shame she felt about her past behavior. She said she felt adrift after retiring from acting in 2010 and that her substance abuse was the main cause of her outlandish Twitter rants and legal trouble.

Bynes has led a more private life since her conservatorship was put in place, studying fashion, and last year her family’s attorney revealed she was seeking treatment related to her mental health troubles.

Whereas Spears’ continued success as a pop star and as a mother has drawn questions about whether the conservatorship was still necessary, the small glimpses into Bynes’ life has done the opposite, Breuer said.

“You don’t see Amanda Bynes having her s--- together at that level,” Breuer said. “What do we know about her? She meditates, she goes to SoulCycle, she has a face tat to match her nose piercing, and she has ongoing mental health issues… you want to talk about perception, she does a better job of playing the role of someone who needed a conservatorship, not just at the time but also over the years.”

The cases have also unfolded very differently in court, said Sarah Wentz, attorney and partner at Fox Rothschild law firm. Spears’ former attorney pushed for her case to be unsealed and open to the public, while Bynes' case is still behind closed doors.

“Amanda Bynes isn't out on stage performing, and all these people who are fans of this individual, seeing them perform saying, ‘what's happening with her, what's going on?’” Wentz said. “And I think it kind of pushed them to open this up because I wouldn't say it's normal to have it be unsealed.”

A judge also approved a request from Bynes’ mother to end her estate conservatorship in 2017, keeping Bynes under her mother’s control for medical and personal affairs. A 2016 court ruling indicates that Bynes’ assets were moved into a trust, which is less restrictive and puts the family in court less often, Wentz said.

“She could remove her father at any time she could override his decision. She could revoke or replace the trustee,” Wentz said. “But there's probably a provision in that trust or any trust a person creates that says if medical doctors have deemed the grantor to be incapacitated, then the successor trustee is in control and at that point, you'd lose the ability to remove that person or really override their decisions.”

There is still much unknown about Bynes' case, while Spears has been able to openly express her experiences and feelings to the public.

Both high-profile cases, however, offer lessons about how these conservatorship cases can improve moving forward, Wentz said.

One way to increase public trust in some of these sealed cases is to ensure a third party checks with conservatees on a regular basis and that they are aware of their rights.

“We can't have just one person like Amanda Bynes’ mom, I think it was, filed the annual wellbeing report: 'OK, here's where she's living, she's doing fine,’” Wentz said. “Well, is anybody checking that out, or is it just that one statement annually that says she's fine and nobody looks at it? Because, in the cases I've been involved in, that's exactly what happens.”