Conservatorships (called guardianships in some states) became known to most people for the first time during a high-profile dispute involving Britney Spears in 2021. The pop star publicly and successfully made the case that the legal arrangement that had granted her father control of her personhood and finances since 2008 was no longer warranted. While the publicity raised awareness of conservatorships among the general public, it also deterred the use of them in situations where they would be appropriate, highly beneficial and even lifesaving.
Having reviewed all the available, applicable court documents, I have a rising concern that the same thing is happening again in the area of conservatorships and guardianships.
Last month, former professional football player Michael Oher—depicted in the best-selling book and Oscar-winning film The Blind Side—filed a lawsuit alleging that Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, the individuals he considered his parents, never formally adopted him, as he long thought. Instead, they created a conservatorship that granted them legal authority to make business deals in his name, allegedly enriching themselves financially. In explanation, the Tuohys said they opted for a conservatorship to help lessen the NCAA’s concerns that they were steering Oher to the football program at The University of Mississippi, where they attended college.
As a mental health attorney who regularly advocates for and advances guardianships, I can attest that, regardless of the Tuohys’ motives, they improperly used this legal arrangement. Guardianships and conservatorships are meant to only grant authority over another’s personal, medical and/or financial decisions in the event the person lacks capacity, meaning they don’t have the physical or cognitive ability to, say, appreciate the nature of a medical or mental health diagnosis, are unable to maintain a safe environment for themselves or can’t communicate their decisions. For this reason, guardianships or conservatorships are most common among individuals with serious mental illness, significant substance use issues and various forms of dementia.
From the vantage point of a mental health attorney who brings guardianship cases, it’s difficult to understand the Tuohys’ actions or the court’s acceptance of their request, given the strict legal standard of capacity.
Even if the Tuhoys did not seek to gain monetarily from this highly unusual arrangement, they were apparently ill-advised on this matter. Petitioning the court for a conservatorship as a kind of workaround for their challenge with the NCAA—or any contractual matter—represents a serious misuse of the system meant to help families in need. Their actions risk tainting the guardianship and conservatorship system at large, which isn’t perfect but, in my professional opinion, does vastly more good than harm.
Guardianships and conservatorships serve a distinct and vital purpose. They make it possible for family members and caregivers to protect and preserve the well-being of loved ones in situations where they cannot act in their own best interests. The rare but often highly publicized stories that involve bad actors have a pronounced chilling effect, making it more challenging for those trying to do the right thing for incapacitated loved ones to explore all the appropriate, potentially beneficial options at their disposal.