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Jay Leno Files for Conservatorship of Wife. What Is a Conservatorship?

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. | Last updated on

The former host of The Tonight Show, Jay Leno, filed for conservatorship of his wife, Mavis, who is suffering from dementia. In court documents, he is asking a court to be put in charge of her personal and financial decisions following her dementia diagnosis.

Dementia has become an all-too-common issue for aging people in recent years. As people live longer, there is a risk of cognitive decline, and they may lose the ability to manage their personal and financial lives. In a 2023 Alzheimer’s Association report, 1 in 9 people over 65 years of age have Alzheimer’s Disease, which is only one form of dementia.

In Leno’s petition to the Los Angeles Superior Court, he expresses his wish to create an estate plan, including a living trust to protect Mavis Leno financially should Leno die before she does. The petition states that he also wants to safeguard Mavis’s brother with her estate.

What Is a Conservatorship?

conservatorship is a legal proceeding where someone petitions the court to manage a person’s affairs and make decisions on their behalf due to the person’s age or mental or physical difficulties. You must prove to the court that the person cannot handle their own affairs in their current condition and that you can serve in the person’s best interest. If the court agrees, they designate you as the conservator. The person in a conservatorship is a conservatee.

A conservator may also be called a guardian, although that designation may also apply when dealing with minor children. Different states use different terms. A “conservator or guardian of the estate” refers to someone controlling financial matters. A “conservator or guardian” of the person means someone has control over the living arrangements and healthcare matters. In some states, a “conservator” makes financial decisions while a “guardian” makes personal decisions.

How Does a Conservatorship Help?

The advantage of a conservatorship is that it provides help to someone who needs it. For example, if you have a parent who has dementia and can’t (or refuses) to care for themselves, it may be necessary to get a conservatorship to get them the help they need.

What Are Issues With Conservatorships?

While conservatorships exist to protect those who can’t manage things independently, there are drawbacks. The court process to grant and maintain a conservatorship is expensive and lengthy. Family members may disagree (and litigate) on who would be the best conservator.

Conservatorships are also burdensome. The conservator must file annual reports with the court that oversees the conservatorship, including details of significant decisions.

And finally, conservatorships are hard to get. Recently, Cher was denied temporary conservatorship over her 47-year-old son who is struggling with mental health and substance abuse. She will return to court in March for a more extended hearing and must prove that her son, Elijah Blue, cannot handle his affairs alone.

Britney Spears was famously under a 13-year conservatorship where she could not handle her own personal and financial matters. She sought to have her father removed as her conservator in September 2021, claiming it was a traumatizing situation where she had no control over when she could work, who she could marry, or if she could have more children. The court ultimately released Spears from her conservatorship in November, 2021.

What Are Alternatives to Conservatorships?

Conservatorships are the last resort when someone is unable to manage their personal or financial affairs. A better way to plan for a potential incapacity or cognitive decline is by creating a power of attorney document and advance medical directives.

  • Power of Attorney.power of attorney is a legal document where you choose an agent to act on your behalf. A durable power of attorney means the authority is effective upon signing and remains effective after an incapacity. A springing power of attorney is effective when you direct it to be. For example, when you become incapacitated, on a certain date, or some other anticipated event. Under a power of attorney, your agent has a fiduciary duty to act in your best interest, managing your financial life, paying bills, maintaining family support, and handling other transactions you designate.
  • Advance Healthcare Directive. Advance healthcare directives may include a healthcare power of attorney and a living will. Your healthcare agent or healthcare surrogate makes medical decisions when you can’t and follows any instructions you leave them about your care. In a living will you detail what life-prolonging treatments you want if you are in a persistent vegetative state or have a terminal condition.

By naming the agents you want in a power of attorney and advance healthcare directive, you have people in place should you become incapacitated and can’t handle your affairs. It avoids the need for a court to appoint a conservator. Your loved ones save time and money in court, and you decide who should handle your affairs, not a court.

If Leno and his wife had these power of attorney and advance healthcare directives in place, he would not need to petition the court for a conservatorship. Indeed, the Tonight Show star should create estate planning documents of his own. Leno’s estate plan should include power of attorney and advance medical directives for him since he was recently involved in a serious motorcycle accident.

You can avoid conservatorship by putting your wishes in writing in a power of attorney and advance medical directives. Many people get started on their estate planning by visiting a lawyer or online estate planning services.

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