Conservatorship vs. guardianship: Breaking down high-profile cases

  • A close friend of Wendy Williams voiced concerns over her guardianship
  • Britney Spears' conservatorship sparked the #FreeBritney movement
  • Conservatorships and guardianships are established to protect individuals

(NewsNation) — A recent documentary about Wendy Williams is sparking new interest in the topic of guardianship and its potential misuse.

In an exclusive interview on NewsNation’s “CUOMO,” Regina Shell, a close friend of Wendy Williams, voiced concerns over the TV personality’s guardianship arrangement. The documentary has faced criticism for its portrayal of Williams.

Also widely covered was Britney Spears getting freed from her conservatorship, in which her father had control over her personal and financial affairs.

But what is the difference between a conservatorship and a guardianship? Let’s break it down.

What is a conservatorship?

A conservatorship is a legal arrangement where a court appoints a person or organization to manage the financial and personal affairs of another individual, known as the “conservatee.” This arrangement is typically established when the conservatee is unable to make decisions for themselves due to incapacity or disability.

What is a guardianship?

A guardianship is a similar legal arrangement where a court appoints a guardian to make decisions for a person, known as the “ward,” who is unable to make decisions due to incapacity or disability. Guardianships typically cover personal and medical decisions rather than financial matters, according to MetLife.

Why are conservatorships and guardianships needed?

Conservatorships and guardianships are established to protect individuals who are unable to make decisions for themselves due to factors such as mental illness, disability, or old age. They provide a legal framework for managing these individuals’ affairs and ensuring their well-being.

How can they be misused?

While conservatorships and guardianships are intended to protect vulnerable individuals, they can be susceptible to abuse and exploitation. In some cases, the appointed conservator or guardian may misuse their authority for personal gain, neglect the needs of the conservatee or ward or make decisions that are not in their best interests.

FILE - In this April 12, 2018 file photo, Britney Spears arrives at the 29th annual GLAAD Media Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif. Spears is shooting down rumors of a new album, vowing to “never return to the music industry.” At the same time, Spears noted in an Instagram post Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, she's still writing music — just for other people. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)
FILE – In this April 12, 2018 file photo, Britney Spears arrives at the 29th annual GLAAD Media Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif. Spears is shooting down rumors of a new album, vowing to “never return to the music industry.” At the same time, Spears noted in an Instagram post Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, she’s still writing music — just for other people. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

Britney Spears conservatorship

Britney Spears was placed under a conservatorship in 2008 after a series of public incidents and concerns over her mental health. Her father, Jamie Spears, and a professional conservator were initially appointed to oversee her personal and financial affairs.

In June 2021, Spears gave a powerful testimony in court, alleging abuse and expressing her desire to end the conservatorship. The case sparked a movement known as #FreeBritney, with supporters calling for an end to the conservatorship and greater transparency in the legal system. After a long legal battle, the conservatorship was terminated in November 2021, restoring Britney Spears’ autonomy.

Wendy Williams guardianship

Wendy Williams Private Dinner NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 21: Wendy Williams attends a private dinner at Fresco By Scotto on February 21, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 21: Wendy Williams attends a private dinner at Fresco By Scotto on February 21, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

Wendy Williams‘ guardianship was established in 2022 to address concerns about Williams’ well-being and financial affairs amid health issues and personal challenges.

In Williams’ case, a New York state judge appointed a guardian who was unrelated to her. Williams’ family said in the docuseries that her court-appointed legal guardian is the only person with unrestrained access to her regarding her well-being and current location, NPR reported.

Mavis Leno conservatorship

Jay Leno and Mavis Leno attend the private unveiling of the Meyers Manx electric automobile at Little Beach House Malibu on August 08, 2022 in Malibu, California. (Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)

In January 2024, comedian Jay Leno filed for a conservatorship over his wife, Mavis Leno, who had been diagnosed with dementia. The conservatorship will allow Leno to make critical decisions regarding Mavis’ care and assets if her condition deteriorates further.

The filing states that 77-year-old Mavis “has been progressively losing capacity and orientation to space and time for several years.”

Dementia impairs a person’s memory and the ability to make everyday decisions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which noted on its website that Alzheimer’s is the most common form of the illness.

Cher and Elijah Blue Allman

FILE - Cher poses at the premiere of the documentary film "Sidney," Sept. 21, 2022, in Los Angeles. Cher has filed a petition to become a temporary conservator overseeing her son's money, saying his struggles with mental health and substance abuse have left him unable to manage his assets and potentially put his life in danger. The Oscar and Grammy winning singer and actor on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023, filed the petition in Los Angeles Superior Court that would give her temporary control of the finances of Elijah Blue Allman, her 47-year-old son with musician Gregg Allman. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)
FILE – Cher poses at the premiere of the documentary film “Sidney,” Sept. 21, 2022, in Los Angeles. Cher has filed a petition to become a temporary conservator overseeing her son’s money, saying his struggles with mental health and substance abuse have left him unable to manage his assets and potentially put his life in danger. The Oscar and Grammy winning singer and actor on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023, filed the petition in Los Angeles Superior Court that would give her temporary control of the finances of Elijah Blue Allman, her 47-year-old son with musician Gregg Allman. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)

Famed singer and actress Cher sought a conservatorship over her youngest child, Elijah Blue Allman, citing concerns about his well-being and potential misuse of substances. According to court documents, Allman is “substantially unable to manage his financial resources,” adding that a conservator is “urgently needed … to protect Elijah’s property from loss or injury.”

Cher argues in the documents that she should act as sole conservator, claiming that it would not be in her son’s best interests for his estranged wife, Marieangela King, to take on the role. The filing, first reported by The Blast, states that King and Allman, who entered divorce proceedings in 2021, had a “tumultuous relationship” marked by a “cycle of drug addiction and mental health crises.”

Amanda Bynes court conservatorship

FILE – Amanda Bynes arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York on Sept. 13, 2009. Bynes was released Tuesday, March 22, 2022, from a court conservatorship that put her life and financial decisions in her parents’ control for nearly nine years. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer, File)

Actor Amanda Bynes was released from a court conservatorship that put her life and financial decisions in her parents’ control for nearly nine years.

Bynes shot to fame on a pair of Nickelodeon shows as a teenager, but struggles with mental health, substance abuse and the law prompted her parents to establish court control through a conservatorship in 2013.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Roger Lund said Bynes had demonstrated competency to manage her affairs, including her mental health and other medical treatment. Bynes’ parents agreed that the conservatorship should end, and no one else objected to the court’s decision. Her mother, Lynn Bynes, had acted as her conservator since it was established nearly nine years ago.

Michael Oher conservatorship

SAN JOSE, CA – FEBRUARY 02: Tackle Michael Oher #73 of the Carolina Panther addresses the media prior to Super Bowl 50 at the San Jose Convention Center/ San Jose Marriott on February 2, 2016 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

A Tennessee judge ended a conservatorship agreement between former NFL player Michael Oher and a Memphis couple who took him in when he was in high school, but the highly-publicized dispute over financial issues will continue.

Oher signed the conservatorship when he was 18 and living with the couple as colleges were recruiting him as a star high school football player. Their story is the subject of the film “The Blind Side,” which earned Sandra Bullock an Oscar.

Oher has asked that the Tuohys provide a financial accounting of money that may have come to them as part of the agreement, claiming that they used his name, image and likeness to enrich themselves and lied to him that the agreement meant the Tuohys were adopting him.

Brian Wilson conservatorship

FILE - Brian Wilson, left, and his wife Melinda Ledbetter arrive at the 73rd annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2016. The management team of the Beach Boys co-founder has filed papers to put him in a conservatorship. The court filing says Wilson needs someone to oversee his daily life and medical decisions because of the recent death of his wife. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)
FILE – Brian Wilson, left, and his wife Melinda Ledbetter arrive at the 73rd annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2016. The management team of the Beach Boys co-founder has filed papers to put him in a conservatorship. The court filing says Wilson needs someone to oversee his daily life and medical decisions because of the recent death of his wife. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

In February, the management team of Brian Wilson petitioned to place him in a conservatorship because of his mental decline and the recent death of his wife, Melinda Ledbetter Wilson, who managed his daily life.

The 81-year-old Beach Boys co-founder has a “major neurocognitive disorder” and is taking medication for dementia, according to a doctor’s declaration filed with the petition in Feburary in Los Angeles Superior Court.

The petition asks a judge to appoint two longtime Wilson representatives—publicist Jean Sievers and manager LeeAnn Hard—as conservators overseeing his personal and medical decisions because “Mr. Wilson is unable to properly provide for his own personal needs for physical health, food, clothing, or shelter.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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