Cindy Birdsong, of the Supremes, needed help controlling her dwindling assets. Mavis Leno, Jay’s wife, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease before having completed her estate planning. After suffering a brain aneurism, Joni Mitchell was unable to make medical decisions. For each of these women, Courts were asked to appoint a Conservator.
Courts appoint conservators to manage and administer finances for a person whose mental capacity has diminished. In the case of Cindy Birdsong, her four siblings suspected that funds were missing from Birdsong’s account. Birdsong had named two friends as agents under a financial power of attorney. She trusted them with the power to invest and spend. However, Birdsong’s siblings discovered that over $100,000 was missing. The siblings accused the agents of exercising undue influence over the aging and feeble Birdsong.
The friends offered competing stories. One described spending the money for Birdsong’s care in a rehab facility. The other offered that the money was held in a separate account for safekeeping. Ultimately, a Los Angeles judge appointed a city official from the Office of Public Guardian to manage Birdsong’s assets. The Judge further suspended the two powers of the two agents appointed by Birdsong.
“Mavis [Leno] has been progressively losing capacity and orientation to space and time for several years,” according to conservatorship documents filed on behalf of her husband Jay Leno. Apparently, the couple had not completed their estate planning despite Jay Leno’s age at 73 and Mavis at 77. If appointed conservator, Jay Leno would have authority to move Mavis’ assets into a trust. A living trust would organize assets so that Mavis has “managed assets sufficient to provide for her care” should Jay die before her, according to a copy of the petition filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The filing of a conservatorship petition suggests that Mavis Leno’s dementia is quite advanced if she is unable to understand and sign documents to move assets into a trust account. The standard for signing such documents is actually rather low. Full comprehension is not a requirement for the execution of a trust or a transfer of assets. Therefore, the appointment of a conservator for estate planning purposes is not common.
Joni Mitchell suffered an aneurysm in 2015 requiring an extended hospital stay. Longtime friend Leslie Morris asked to be appointed Mitchell’s conservator, filing a petition with the Court. She did not seek total control of Mitchell’s estate; rather, she sought the appointment to assist with decision making regarding Joni Mitchell’s care and recovery. Mitchell does not have any family who can serve in this position. In California, the designation of Conservator can be for either or both financial matters as well as living decisions. In Mitchell’s case, the conservatorship extended only to medical decisions and residential choices. A conservatorship for medical reasons is also called a guardianship or guardianship of the person in other states.
Three women needed the intervention of a Court to protect them. Whether advanced age or illness, anyone may succumb to diminished mental capacity. These stories demonstrate the urgent need for planning before one is ill. Moreover, the most critical choice we make in planning is the selection of trustworthy and skilled agents to act on our behalf. Now is the time to consider if each of us has taken appropriate steps to protect ourselves and our assets when we too are less able to manage our affairs.
Evan J. Krame