Vanity Fair recently published a new article, “It is Not a Coincidence: With 75 million on the line, the Redstone Family declares Sumner incompetent.” If you’re unfamiliar, Sumner Redstone is the Hollywood Mogul billionaire at the helm of a media empire that includes CBS and Viacom. For the past several years, Sumner has been at the center of multiple court cases in Southern California. Primarily at issue is his mental competence. Now 95 year old, questions around Sumner’s ability to make his own decisions – and those for his business - have thrown the family - and the company into an ongoing Court battle.
The latest court proceedings were regarding the appointment of what’s called a “Guardian Ad Litem” for Mr. Redstone. While well written and entertaining, Vanity Fair’s article does not define what exactly a Guardian Ad Litem is, and fails to recognize that the word “Guardian” is not related to a “guardianship” in California probate law. I’m not criticizing, after all most of us wouldn’t care what the difference is anyhow. But if you’re facing a legal guardianship – correctly called a “Conservatorship” for those over 18 in California, the meaning of each role has real significance. And even if you’re not facing a Conservatorship, it’s always nice to be informed.
Much of what Sumner Redstone has been in the news for falls under a Probate proceeding called a “Conservatorship.” Other much younger celebrities, such as Britney Spears and Amanda Bynes, have also made headlines for their conservatorships. A Conservatorship is where the Court appoints an individual to be in charge of another’s finances and/or healthcare. Sounds simple, right? If you believe an individual can no longer take care of themselves – and are literally a danger to themselves – you can present evidence as such to a judge and petition for Conservatorship. With enough clear evidence, most judges will grant Conservatorship. In many instances however, complicating factors make the path to Conservatorship a difficult one.
Conservatorship proceedings can be hotly litigated by family members and sometimes the proposed Conservatee. Redstone’s case began like many other Conservatorships - with the signing of Estate Planning documents. In 2016, Sumner’s daughter had him sign new estate planning documents that ousted his longtime companion, Manuela Herzer. Herzer then filed a conservatorship alleging Redstone lacked the mental competence to make such decisions and was subject to undue influence by his daughter Shari. Undue influence, defined by California law 15610.70 is essentially when someone applies “excessive persuasion” that “results in inequity.” The Conservatorship proceeding primarily revolved around who would manage Redstone’s healthcare. When someone has sufficient mental competence, he or she can appoint his or her own agent using an Advance Healthcare Directive. If that mental competence is gone – or is in question – one can go to Court and establish a Conservatorship. For purposes of health care and wellbeing, a “Conservatorship of the Person” appoints a “Conservator” to make health related decisions on behalf of another, called the “Conservatee.”
In my practice, I have seen a handful of litigated Conservatorships that revolve solely around who will manage the Conservatee’s healthcare. Typically the real fighting begins when money is involved. And this was exactly what happened in Redstone’s case. After the initial Conservatorship proceeding regarding healthcare, Redstone became the center of a number of other Court cases that involved both a Conservatorship of the Estate as well as Trust matters. In other words – Sumner’s money: who controls it, and who gets it. Because Sumner was at the helm of such a vast media empire, his battles have also included significant litigation regarding who controls his shares and recent decisions he’s made at the company. And this brings us back to Vanity Fair’s article about the appointment of a “Guardian Ad Litem” for Sumner Redstone.
Because many litigated Conservatorship proceedings also involve allegations of undue influence, financial elder abuse, and dealings within one or more Trusts, multiple attorneys are appointed to represent the interests of the individual at the Center of the controversy. The first attorney is typically appointed by the Court from a panel of attorneys experienced with representing Conservatees. This is called the Attorney for the Conservatee. He or she is tasked with representing the interests of the Conservatee throughout the Conservatorship proceeding. If a Trust or other proceeding, such as an Elder Abuse lawsuit is filed with the Court, the Judge may choose to appoint a “Guardian Ad Litem” to act as the attorney for the person whose mental capacity is in question. This is exactly what happened in Redstone’s case this week. A Guardian Ad Litem does not fill the role of a “guardian” or “conservator” but instead serves to represent the interest of an individual in lawsuits. In certain instances, the person with questionable mental capacity hires his or her own counsel privately, but this is not looked kindly upon by the Courts because it has either been established – or remains to be seen – if the person has the capacity to enter into a legal contract.
What will ultimately happen Sumner Redstone?
While Mr. Redstone may not have full mental capacity, it’s unlikely he is immune to the immense stress created by the many lawsuits surrounding him.
The bottom line in litigated Trust and Conservatorship matters that involve an elderly individual is that lawsuits - and family fighting - has a detrimental effect on the elder’s health. It’s likely the stress here will only serve to hasten his death.
Can anything be learned from Redstone’s story?
If there’s anything we can take away from Redstone’s very public court battles, it’s that Conservatorship - and competency - can be complicated. If you’re facing a potentially litigated Conservatorship or Trust matter, seek the guidance of an attorney who is not only highly experienced, but also upfront about the financial and emotional toll litigation can take on families.