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Can Britney Spears' father be charged with 'conservatorship abuse'?

The pop star would have to prove that Jamie Spears is misappropriating her money, diverting it for his own benefit or taking her assets, one lawyer said.
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A day after Britney Spears tearfully said she wanted to charge her father with "conservatorship abuse," experts say it's possible a criminal charge could be brought, but it would require the pop star's legal team to prove Jamie Spears has been stealing her money within the past 13 years.

A request was approved for Britney Spears to hire her own attorney Wednesday after the court was forced to address the sudden departure of her former court-appointed attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, who has handled her case since 2008. Ingham was replaced with Britney Spears’ personally chosen attorney, former federal prosecutor Mathew Rosengart.

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Rosengart said his firm will be taking a “top to bottom look” at how James “Jamie” Spears has handled his daughter's conservatorship.

“We will be moving promptly and aggressively for [Jamie Spears’] removal,” Rosengart said. “The question remains: Why is he involved? He should step down voluntarily as that is in the best interest of Britney Spears.”

Britney Spears broke down in tears during Wednesday’s hearing, detailing years of controlling behavior by her father, including taking away her driver’s license and vitamins, even limiting what kinds of foods she can eat on certain days.

“I’m here to get rid of my dad and charge him with conservatorship abuse,” she said via phone conference.

Jamie Spears’ legal team has repeatedly denied allegations of abuse, saying he only has his daughter’s best interests at heart.

Conservatorship lawyers and experts told NBC News that it would take a lot more than words to bring a criminal charge against her father, who has handled her conservatorship for the past 13 years.

“She would have to prove that Jamie is misappropriating her money, diverting it for his own benefit or taking her assets — essentially stealing her money,” said Tamar Arminak, a lawyer who worked with the actor Amanda Bynes’ parents in her conservatorship case.

The process would likely be a difficult road because the funds used by Jamie Spears over the past 13 years have had to be approved by the court, Arminak added. While there’s no denying that Britney Spears’ father has taken “huge amounts” of money for his own salary as a conservator, that isn’t necessarily uncommon in conservatorship cases.

Excessive financial charges may not constitute criminal abuse, but it could signal the “beginning of the end of Jamie in the conservatorship,” according to Arminak.

“If he was doing it for free, we could argue that he was doing it out of the kindness of his heart and as a caring father,” Arminak said. “But if he’s charging as much as a court-appointed professional conservator, if not more, why not change him? To someone who is a professional or someone who has a more peaceful relationship with her?”

Britney Spears’ case is unlike any other conservatorship case, considering the international pop star’s enormous success, NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos said. But some of the issues she raised with the court — control of her diet, money and personal life — are what conservatorships are meant to do.

“The mere fact that a conservatee is unhappy with her conservator does not qualify as abuse,” he said. “But if there was criminal financial activity or physical abuse, that would be easier to prove conservatorship abuse.”

It’s also entirely possible that Britney Spears didn’t mean to imply a criminal charge against her father at all, according to attorney David Esquibias, who represented Amanda Bynes.

“Ordinarily, the ax of the conservator does not rise to the criminal level unless it’s theft or embezzlement or some type of financial misappropriation,” he said.

The singer used the word “charge” during the Wednesday hearing, but said she’d like to sue her family in her June 23 testimony. Esquibias suggested that she may have actually meant Wednesday that she wanted to take civil action, possibly suing her father for breach of fiduciary duty.

“And in that case, she would file a petition in the probate court, she would detail in her petition the alleged wrongdoing, cite the law he violated, and likely request financial sanctions against him,” he said. “He will file a response, and the court will ask the parties to discuss a mediation between the two parties.”

If the father and daughter fail to reach a settlement, the case would go to trial, Esquibias explained.

“Members of the public do not file criminal action, that is the exclusive job of the district attorney,” Esquibias said. “If a DA decides that something is abuse, they have to file criminal charges.”