Free Wendy Williams?

Free Wendy Williams?

The recent Lifetime Network documentary series on the famed daytime television talk show host, Wendy Williams, has again put the spotlight on guardianship. A couple of years ago, Britney Spears conservatorship was in the limelight until she was “freed”. The cases are clearly different as Williams has cognitive issues as she has been diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia (which leads to a loss of function of the frontal and temporal lobes) and aphasia (which affects the ability to speak and understand speech). Well-known actor Bruce Willis also has frontal temporal dementia and aphasia. In the television docuseries, her son, Kevin Hunter, Jr., stated that her dementia was alcohol-induced according to her doctors. The docuseries that followed Williams showed her sometime drinking alcohol. There have also been reports that she was too inebriated to be filmed.

Williams was placed under the guardianship of an independent person, Sabrina Morrissey, by a New York court at the request of Wells Fargo Bank which stated in its petition that she was an “incapacitated person” and the victim of “undue influence and financial exploitation”. The bank froze her accounts as it noticed large withdrawals including $120,000 on a birthday party for her son and $80,000 for his rent. The assets of Williams have dropped significantly. The laws of each state differ on guardianship. It is likely that Williams is under the type of guardianship under New York law whereby the guardian only has the power to meet the needs of the person (ward) who is determined to be incapacitated resulting in the management of the ward’s finances and needs.
There is guardianship of the person and guardianship of the estate under Texas law. Guardian of the person would take care of the ward and their needs. Guardian of the estate would take care of the ward’s assets. Doctors would have to determine if there is a need for guardianship as many of the ward’s rights are taken away by the guardianship determination. Another attorney, an ad litem, is appointed to represent the ward.
Normally family members are first considered to be the guardian. However, in the case of Wendy Williams, family members (in particular her son) may have taken advantage of her. At the very least, family members omitted to act while Williams continued to decline.
If Williams were in Texas, several legal documents could have been considered including the following:

  1. Declaration of Guardian in the Event of Later Incompetence or Need
    Williams could have advised the court who she preferred to take care of her and her assets if she later became incompetent.
  2. Revocable Living Trust
    Assets held in a trust should avoid guardianship of the estate. The document should indicate who is the trustee in addition to alternates in the event the original trustee is unable to act (as determined by either doctors or a disability panel).
  3. Financial Power of Attorney
    Although this document would not have prevented Williams from handling assets not held in a trust, it would give someone else the authority to act as well during her lifetime.
  4. Medical Power of Attorney
    This document would have granted whom she wanted to make medical decisions for her in the event she could not make such decisions for herself.
  5. Directive to Physicians
    Although Williams does not appear close to the end of her life, this document would let doctors and family know what she wants if her condition was terminal or irreversible.
  6. HIPPA
    If Williams is incapacitated, this would give others (i.e., family members) access to her medical records even after death (if the document so grants).
    It should be mentioned that an agent under the power of attorney, a trustee of a trust and a guardian are considered fiduciaries subject to a higher standard. So, if a family member was a fiduciary (agent, trustee, guardian, etc., and such family member exceeded his or her authority, then there could be a lawsuit for breach of fiduciary duty besides removal.
    In Williams’ case, the guardian requested that the docuseries not be aired as a result of her questionable mental capacity to enter into a contract to permit Lifetime to film her. However, the judge permitted the showing citing the First Amendment.
    Wendy Williams said in the show “If it could happen to me, it could happen to you”. Of course, any estate planner would recommend that you have legal documents if anything should happen so that your wishes are met and not left to the courts to decide.
    If interested in learning more about this article or other estate planning, Medicaid and public benefits planning, probate, etc., attend one of our free upcoming Estate Planning Essentials workshops by clicking here or calling 214-720-0102. We make it simple to attend and it is without obligation.

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