Conservatorship: What you should know about the controversial legal arrangement

A controversy over a legal arrangement called a conservatorship has been ignited once again, due to accusations made by a former NFL player.

On Aug. 14, it was reported that Michael Oher has filed a petition in Tennessee to end a conservatorship arrangement that is being held by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy.

Facets of what was once believed to be part of Oher's life were profiled in a movie called "The Blind Side," and in the movie, the Tuohys were portrayed as Oher's adoptive parents.

Oher, however, is now accusing the couple of saying they wanted to adopt him, but took no legal, formal action to follow through. Oher also claims he was tricked into signing papers that he thought were adoption papers.

The papers, Oher claims, were actually conservatorship papers that allegedly gave the Tuohys complete control to enter any contract negotiations on behalf of Oher.

Oher said he didn't know that the couple had tricked him until February 2023.


Michael Oher, profiled in 'The Blind Side,' says inspirational movie was based on lie

In court documents, the retired NFL player said Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy pushed a false narrative that they adopted him, which led to a book and a movie.

In addition to seeking an end to the conservatorship, Oher is also seeking damages from the misuse of his likeness, name, and image. It has previously been reported by the Associated Press that Oher was not a big fan of the movie that profiled him. 

In response, Sean Tuohy told a Tennessee newspaper that the conservatorship was done to satisfy the NCAA, as Oher considered Tuohy’s alma mater Mississippi for college. Sean also said he and his wife would end the conservatorship if that’s what Oher wants.

On Aug. 16, it was reported that the Tuohys are seeking to end Oher's conservatorship.

Here's what you should know about conservatorships, as well as previous controversies involving the legal arrangement.

What is a conservatorship?

According to Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute, a conservatorship is the appointment of a person (the conservator) by a court to manage the affairs of another person (the conservatee), due to the conservatee's mental capacity, age, or physical disability.

"A person who is unable to handle their financial affairs or daily life responsibilities will be considered incapacitated by the court, so the court will assign a conservator to make decisions on behalf of the person," read a portion of the LII website.

Individuals and organizations, according to the LII, can act as conservators.

"Individual conservators are generally appointed by a court, while organization conservators are typically appointed through regulatory or statutory authority," read a portion of the LII's website.

The same website also notes that conservatorships are governed differently in each state, depending on their laws. Some states even use other terms synonymously with the term conservator, like "guardian of the estate" or "trustee."

Why are conservatorships granted?

According to a 2022 article published on the website of MetLife, courts mandate conservatorships when an individual is incapacitated in some way.

Situations that might demand a conservatorship, according to the article, include:

  • Mental disabilities, such as dementia
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Alzheimer's Disease
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Physical disabilities

"Before a conservatorship can be ordered, the potential conservatee must undergo rigorous mental examination to determine if they’re actually incapacitated. Medical professionals, including psychiatrists and physicians, are required to provide verifiable documentation of diagnoses. Courts will only appoint a conservator once the case has been clearly made," read a portion of the article.

What does a conservator do?

According to the MetLife article, conservators are able to limit the conservatee's spending, and in cases where the terms of a conservatorship allows for it, the conservator can even have control over other financial and personal decisions.

The article also notes that the conservator has a duty to manage their conservatee's affairs to the best of their abilities, which includes making arrangements on a number of matters, including housing, education, healthcare, transportation, food, recreational activities, and housekeeping.

"The conservator must provide thorough documentation of how they’re managing the conservatee’s money and personal affairs. These documents are carefully scrutinized by the court," read a portion of the article.

How long do conservatorships last?

Depending on the type of conservatorship, the answer is different.

According to a pamphlet published by the Department of Aging and Adult Services in Santa Clara County, conservatorships in California can last anywhere from 30 days to the rest of the conservatee's life, depending on the type of conservatorship that was obtained, as well as whether the conservatorship is considered temporary or permanent by law.

The same pamphlet also notes that some conservatorships can end automatically if the conservator is not reappointed after a year, and some conservatorships can end by request.

How many people are placed under conservatorships?

According to a 2018 report by the National Council on Disability, conservatorships (referred to in the report as guardianships) "directly impacts the lives of an estimated 1.3 million Americans with disabilities."

Why are conservatorships controversial?

According to a 2022 article published by the Associated Press, some advocacy groups contend that people under a conservatorship can become trapped in a system that removes their civil rights and the ability to advocate for themselves.

In the highly public conservatorship case involving singer Britney Spears, it was reported by the AP that in her case, the conservator had power to:

  • Restrict Spears' visitors
  • Arrange and oversee visits with Spears' two sons Kevin Federline had custody of
  • The power to take out restraining orders in Spears' name
  • The power to make medical decisions and business deals
  • The power to approve a decision by Spears to get married

In 2021, the AP reported that at least one state at the time had a "catch-all" conservatorship category that allowed virtually anyone who claims to have concern for the financial or personal well-being of another adult petition the court to strip someone of their decision-making power.

It is also reportedly rare, at least in 2021, for a person to successfully ask to be released from a conservatorship.

The AP also reported in the same article on abuses involving conservators. According to the article, a federal investigation found that 1,000 clients lost more than $10 million in a multi-year embezzlement scheme perpetrated by a New Mexico-based company that, according to the U.S. Justice Department, offered "guardianship, conservatorship and financial management services to hundreds of individuals with special needs."

Are there other high-profile conservatorship cases?

As mentioned in the section above, Britney Spears was involved in a highly public conservatorship case.

Britney Spears

Britney Spears

Britney Spears (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

In her case, Spears' father, who served as a conservator for some time, was given the wide-ranging powers listed above.

It should be noted that according to the AP, only certain aspects of Spears' conservatorship were revealed in documents, and other details on the inner workings of Spears' conservatorship were closely guarded by the court.

Spears' conservatorship began in 2008, following a very public bout of mental struggles. The conservatorship was put in place within days after she was hospitalized and put on a psychiatric hold.

In November 2021, a court in California terminated Spears' conservatorship following a highly public battle that gave birth to the hashtag #FreeBritney. The battle also involved various fans of the singer. By then, Spears' conservatorship had lasted over a decade.

Amanda Bynes

Amanda Bynes

Amanda Bynes (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Another rather high-profile conservatorship case involved actress Amanda Bynes.

In 2022, our sister station in Los Angeles, FOX 11, reported that Bynes filed to end her conservatorship, just months after Spears' conservatorship came to an end.

Bynes' conservatorship, according to reports, began in 2013, after her parents became concerned about her mental health, which led to Bynes being temporarily committed to a psychiatric health facility.

In Bynes' case, it was her mother who became the conservator.

In March 2022, a judge ordered Bynes' conservatorship terminated. Bynes' conservatorship lasted nine years.

Brian Wilson

Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson (Photo by Arthur Pollock/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson (Photo by Arthur Pollock/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

Another celebrity who was once placed under a conservatorship, according to reports, was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

According to a 2021 article by United Kingdom newspaper The Daily Telegraph, Wilson was placed under a conservatorship in the early 1990s, following controversy in his relations with a man named Eugene Landy.

Landy, according to the article, had a doctor-patient relationship with Wilson that began in 1976, as Wilson suffered from mental health problems that reportedly led to the use of drugs, alcohol, and overindulgence in food. Landy, at the time, declared that Wilson needed 24/7 therapy for at least two years.

While Wilson, according to the article, eventually rejoined the Beach Boys, there were reportedly suspicions in the Beach Boys camp about Landy's ulterior motives. When Wilson relapsed at some point in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, he rejoined Landy's program with help from his group.

Eventually, according to the article, Landy became Wilson's professional and financial partner, with his name even appearing on Wilson's official documents. Landy was also accused of charging Wilson for $430,000 per year for various services, and was even accused of controlling Wilson's love life.

By 1989, the article states that Landy was forced to surrender his license to practice psychology, and a year later, Wilson's family filed a lawsuit to appoint a conservator for Wilson, in an effort to separate Landy from Wilson. A lawyer was eventually appointed as Wilson's conservator, and Landy was ordered by a court to remove himself from Wilson's life.

Landy died in 2006, according to the article, and Wilson was reportedly not entirely regretful of his association with Landy.

"I still feel that there was benefit," Wilson was quoted as saying, in the article. "I try to overlook the bad stuff, and be thankful for what he taught me."

Are there efforts to reform conservatorships?

The AP reported in 2022 that California Governor Gavin Newsom has signed a bill that placed limits on conservatorships.

Under the new law, judges are required to document all alternatives to conservatorship before granting one. The law is noted to be in alignment with similar legislation adopted in other states.

The new California law, according to the AP, will also give potential conservatees preference for selecting a conservator.

In 2021, the AP reported on measures enacted by states other than California to reform conservatorships, including the establishment of an independent conservatorship review process in New Mexico, and the offering of free legal help for conservatees in Oregon.

This website does not provide legal advice. The information provided above is meant to be informative, and nothing on this site should be considered as a substitute for advice from a legal professional. If you have concerns, reach out to a licensed lawyer.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.