Sumner Redstone remains embroiled in lawsuits: The link between money and Conservatorship

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.

If you have questions about Conservatorship or Trust Litigation in the San Francisco East Bay and Contra Costa County, contact our office for a Consultation: 925-322-1795.

S-Town: The Truth behind the Guardianship of Mary Grace McLemore

For those of you who are fans - or at least avid listeners to the hit podcast "S-Town," you may be left with a few questions:

  • What happened to Mary Grace? 
  • Where is the gold??
  • Did Cousin Rita have something to gain?
  • What happened to all those dogs?

I can't answer these questions definitively, but a recent examination of Mary Grace McLemore's Conservatorship/Guardianship file from the Bibb County Probate Court sheds light on a few of them.

Now, first I'll say that as an attorney who specializes in Conservatorships, as soon as John mention Mary Grace had dementia, I immediately wondered if he was her Conservator. For clarification, a "conservatorship" is equivalent to a guardianship for an adult. Conservatorships allow one person - the Conservator -to manage medical and financial affairs for another, usually a person with dementia or related illness. All John's trips to visit his lawyer - one B. Boozer Downs, Jr. - led me to believe a Conservatorship might be in place.

Despite my suppositions, a review of Mary Grace's file revealed that John did not have Conservatorship over Mary Grace, but was her "agent" under a power of attorney. It appears that Mary Grace signed the power of attorney very close to the time she was diagnosed with dementia, which legally can be very risky. However, with no other close family besides John, a lawsuit would have seemed unlikely.

A conservatorship proceeding was not initiated until after John's suicide, when Mary Grace's second cousin, Rita Lawrence, petitioned the court to become Conservator of both Mary Grace's "person," and her "estate." A Conservatorship of the Person would allow Rita to manage health and medical decisions for Mary Grace, while Conservatorship of the Estate would giv her control over Mary Grace's financial affairs. 

Now, let's start with perhaps the biggest curiosity of S-Town: What happened to the Gold?

Apologies if I got you too excited - I too was hoping Mary Grace's Conservatorship file, which contains a detailed accounting of all her expenses and income, would show signs of a gold discovery. Alas, it was not so. Even a hint of mysterious funds was not to be found. Instead, Rita was lending money to Mary Grace (or rather her conservatorship bank account) so that she could pay for expenses incurred prior to the sale of her property.

If Mary Grace didn't have any gold, what assets did she have?

Other than the property Mary Grace and John lived on - a vast 123 acres of mostly forested land, Mary Grace had a paltry $98 in her bank account when John passed away. According to the Conservatorship accounting, Mary Grace did have a monthly income of about $2,000 from Social Security and VA benefits. 

On August 12, 2016 Burt Holdings (ironically owned by rumored-but-not murderer Kaleb's father) bought Mary Grace's property for $280,000. The funds from the property sale would have gone directly to Mary Grace's conservatorship account, to be used for her care. If anything is left over, it would be inherited by her heirs.

What happened to Mary Grace after Rita became Conservator?

When listening to the show, I concluded that Mary Grace had gone to Florida to live with Rita (or Reta). But that was not the case, at least for the following year after John's death. From shortly after John's suicide to the end of the Conservatorship accounting in July 2016, Mary Grace still resided in Alabama, just 7 miles away from her home with John. She was apparently sent to live with a full time caregiver. 

This fact would certainly quell any fears Tyler Goodson had about Mary Grace being taken away. It's unclear exactly who the caregiver is in relation to the family, or how she ended up being the one to care for Mary Grace, but it seems to me like the small town equivalent of placing a Conservatee in a residential living facility. 

Is Mary Grace in a better situation than she was with John?

It is unclear as to whether or not Mary Grace is happier and receiving superior care. Rita reports to the court that Mary Grace is "thriving" in her new environment, and I certainly hope she is. It's also unclear if Mary Grace was being properly cared for by John. According to the Conservatorship documents, the Woodstock property had to be sprayed for fleas on at least two different occasions after John's death. This is a bad sign in general, but we of course have to take into account the many dogs that lived with them. Which brings us to the question...

What happened to all those Dogs?

Those of you who listened to the podcast will remember that John said he had quite a few dogs. According to Mary Grace's file, she paid $60 in August of 2015 to remove 10 dogs from the property. Presumably someone took care of the dogs after John died - was it Tyler? Sadly, many of those dogs probably did not survive the year.

Did Cousin Rita have something to gain?

S-Town inspired a bit of a conspiracy around Rita's presence in Mary Grace's life. In fact, many conservatorship cases can turn in to hotly contested matters where one party is in fact out to gain something for themselves. After a review of her file, however, I have to say that in this particular matter, that does not appear to be the case. In fact, due to the many criminal counts Tyler is being tried for, it appears that Tyler, and John by default, are the ones guilty of wreaking havoc in the Conservatorship case. Why John? Because he killed himself in what was likely a traumatizing event for Tyler - and furthermore neglected to do a will leaving Tyler what he'd supposedly promised to him. Had John done a will, Tyler likely would have gotten more closure and been able to move forward with his life. 

Now, that's not to say that Rita did everything for Mary Grace out of sheer love and kindness. She did get paid for her time. This is normal for Conservators, however. If the Conservator is a child of the Conservatee, he or she may not seek payment, but other relatives typically do. In Bibb County the rate is $18/hr, while here in Northern California the rate ranges between $25-$40/hr, depending on the county. Still, assuming Rita never found any gold, she certainly did not become rich by stepping in to help Mary Grace. Moreover, Rita appears to be the only relatively young family member Mary Grace had. Two other relatives live in Alabama - cousins Elna and Kay. They appear to be Mary Grace's direct heirs, and were asked to sign off on the sale of her property. Elna and Kay are likely quite old themselves, and therefore not in a position to care for Mary Grace. So Rita was the best choice.

So, now you know what happened to Mary Grace after John's death, and perhaps have a little more insight into the story of John McLemore and S-Town, also commonly called Woodstock, Alabama.

For more information about Conservatorship, contact my Walnut Creek Elder Law Office at 925-322-1795.