Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners –This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Welcome back for another Legal Tea episode today, episode one hundred and thirty-one! Today’s episode is a “current trends” episode where we talk about things going on currently that is relevant and pertinent to my estate and elder law world, and/or maybe things I’ve seen on the news or stumbled across on social media that are also relevant to my estate/elder law world. Well, on today’s “current trends” episode, we’re going to chat about something going on with Jay Leno, the famous television host, and his wife, Mavis Leno. I did a quick search on Mavis and loved this description of her on Wikipedia: “A leading feminist in California, in the United States as a whole, and internationally, [Mavis] keeps a low profile in comparison to her husband, choosing instead to work behind the scenes…” Anyway, the Lenos have made the headlines recently because Jay in January of this year, 2024, filed for conservatorship over Mavis.
Now, you remember that word, conservatorship, from past episodes I’ve done on here – Britney Spears’ conservatorship, Amanda Bynes’ conservatorship, Wendy Williams too, etc. So, it’s a word that sure is getting a lot of publicity in the “famous people” space, but while there are mixed feelings and opinions on if and when they’re needed for those individuals, what I can tell you as an estate and elder law attorney, conservatorships, or as we call them in Indiana, guardianships, are something that are quite commonly done for “regular, non-famous people” too. In fact, that’s why I talked about them here on Legal Tea is to share some information about when they’re needed and what they are, what they do. So, let’s talk about guardianships first, then we’ll dive into what is going on with Jay and Mavis Leno!
So, how do guardianships fit into my little estate world? Well, I CERTAINLY have not done them for any celebrities – but where we do commonly see them is in two situations. First, we help clients gain guardianship over children who may have special needs – and with turning 18, the child becomes, legally speaking, an adult. So sometimes, kiddos who are about to turn 18, the parents (or whoever may be the proposed legal guardian) want to maintain being the child’s decision-maker … and a guardianship is the legal procedure to make that happen. Second, we help clients gain guardianship over aging adults, who may be experiencing significant cognitive impairment – think, advanced dementia, Alzheimers, etc. – where the person, due to their cognitive impairment, need further assistance with decision-making. Oftentimes, we see this become a thing IF the person does NOT have a Power of Attorney in place -or- perhaps their Power of Attorney is not “strong” enough and the person trying to help with decisions is hitting roadblocks.
If we are looking at obtaining guardianship over someone, it’s worth quickly noting the process. Like so many have learned through Britney Spears’ story, it’s a COURT process – which means individuals hire an attorney to assist them through the proceeding – it involves a lot of paperwork, a hearing, and ultimately the Judge decides whether the proposed Guardian is an appropriate and suitable person to make decisions for the person. As part of the process, there are two types of Guardianship that can be established …there’s Guardian of the “person” and secondly, Guardian of the “estate.” Guardian of the “person” means you have the authority to make decisions about the “person” – so think like health care decisions, where the person should reside, attend school (if they’re a minor), etc. Now, Guardian of the “estate” means you have the authority to make decisions about the persons “financial affairs” – for this, think applying for governmental benefits, accessing and managing bank and financial accounts, working with financial professionals and tax professionals, etc.
One last super quick thing – I have sort of used the terms, guardianship and conservatorship, interchangeably, and they kind of are – but there is one primarily difference, I suppose, and that is usually conservatorships are more limited than a guardianship. According to a blog by Bratton Estate & Elder Law Attorneys, a law firm in New Jersey, they describe it like this: “Both guardianships and conservatorships are Court-ordered. Family members generally request them when their loved one can no longer make their own decisions, and someone else needs legal authority to act on their behalf.” Now getting to how they are actually different, the blog states, “There is one big difference between guardianships and conservatorships. A legal guardian can make a wide range of personal and medical decisions for the person … while a conservatorship generally grants much more limited decision-making powers. A conservator usually only has the authority to pay bills, make investments, and handle other financial matters.”
So, that’s kind of your crash course of guardianship and conservatorship land. Let’s shift to Jay and Mavis Leno now…
According to NBC News, on January 26th, 2024, Jay filed for conservatorship over his wife, Mavis, in Los Angeles, California. In the Court documents, there are said to be two primary reasons for the conservatorship: first, because Mavis suffers from dementia and second, to allow Jay to do estate planning on behalf of Mavis (since she suffers from this cognitive impairment). The Petition further shares that “Mavis has been progressively losing capacity and orientation to space and time for several years.” You know, as an elder law attorney, it’s hard in these situations because just because someone has a dementia diagnosis, does NOT mean they can NOT sign documents. Let me say that again – just because someone has a dementia diagnosis does NOT mean they can NOT sign estate documents. It’s getting a little close for comfort, but it may not be too late.
Though, here in Jay and Mavis’ situation, it sounds like it is too late. And that is why guardianships and conservatorships are common things in my estate and elder law world. Sometimes, it DOES become too late – and the person does NOT have the mental capacity to sign documents anymore. So, in these documents, Jay is basically saying that because of her dementia diagnosis and her cognitive impairment, she cannot signed estate planning documents – and in fact, the Petition states (according to NBC News), “As Mavis’s current condition renders her incapable of executing an estate plan, Jay has petitioned the Court to be appointed conservator of Mavis’s estate for the sole purpose of filing a petition for substituted judgment on her behalf in order to ensure her desires concerning the disposition of her assets upon her death.”
A quick and additional note on all this – according to a Yahoo article, Jay is specifically requesting to set up a Living Trust to “ensure Mavis has managed assets to cover future care if he predeceases her.” Good for him for proactively thinking about this – of course, if something were to happen to Jay, we’d need someone to step in and help Mavis with financial management and decision-making, so that’s likely why he’s attempting to get a Trust in place – it’s likely the best option “on the table” for them given their situation.
Interestingly, the NBC News article states that there will be a hearing on April 9th, 2024. That’s kind of a long time to have to wait; that’s why I find it interesting. It’s probably a Court docket issue. Here, in Indiana, where this podcast is based out of, once we file for guardianship, we usually have a hearing on the calendar within a couple or a few weeks. So, that’s certainly not ideal to have to wait—because, of course, where my brain goes (my estate lawyer brain), what happens if something were to happen to Mavis before the date? What would happen to their assets? Of course, since it’s in California, they operate by different laws and rules than, say, I do here in Indiana – so I’d merely be speculating.
What I’m saying, but not spitting out, is that it’s completely not ideal to wait until this point in time, obviously right! Clearly, this conservatorship is needed to get an estate plan put in place for Mavis – because it sounds like her estate plan is either non-existent or outdated. I’d guess it’s non-existent because if she had one, but it was outdated or something, Jay would have probably needed to attach that to the Court documents and explain “why” those are not “sufficient” anymore. You know? Jay Leno is 73 years old … Mavis is 77 years old. And if she truly doesn’t have any estate planning done, well two things come to mind: First, Legal Tea Listeners, do not wait until you are in your 70s to do estate planning. Do you know how risky it is to wait until that age? So much can happen. Life is precious. And second, why wasn’t something done as soon as she got the dementia diagnosis? Like I said, just because someone has been diagnosed with dementia, doesn’t mean it's too late. As soon as they got the diagnosis on Mavis, they should have immediately started an estate planning process.
Maybe that wasn’t possible, but maybe it was. According to CBS news, it’s not really publicly known when Mavis was first diagnosed, but there were probably signs leading up to the diagnosis that should have tipped off Jay that something was going on. So, not only should you not wait until you’re in your 70s to do estate planning, even if you do and a diagnosis happens, don’t assume it’s too late to do estate planning. Though, also know, because you waited that long, do know that a diagnosis could also mean it IS too late. So, don’t be mad if the estate attorney won’t let your loved one sign documents. It’s a touch predicament to be in – for you, the family, but also for the estate attorney.
Alrighty, let’s wrap this episode up, shall we? Next week, we’re back to the “celebrity estate planning” type of episode – and during those types of episodes, we dive into a celebrity or “big name” person that has passed away and how their estate looked from an estate planning perspective. Next week’s episode is about an author of a very well-known book (that later became a movie) called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The author’s name is Stieg (Steeg) Larsson. Stieg passed away at a fairly young age (age 50) and left … well, quite a mess that resulted in some people being … surprised, to say the least. Alrighty, Legal Tea Listeners, talk to you next week and stay well!