Q&A: What Is a Conservatorship and Why Was Michael Oher Under One?

Football player with a blue overlay

Naomi Cahn, a professor at the UVA School of Law, says conservatorships are useful, but easy to abuse because of a lack of oversight. (Contributed photo)

August 22, 2023

The 2009 hit movie “The Blind Side” depicts now-retired NFL offensive lineman Michael Oher’s supposed adoption out of poverty by a wealthy white family. Last week, Oher filed a petition alleging that the film’s central premise is a lie.

In the movie, based on a book by the journalist Michael Lewis, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy welcomed Oher into their home as a high school student, adopted him and helped propel him to football stardom. Oher’s petition, however, alleges that instead of adopting him, the Tuohys tricked Oher into signing an agreement that made them his conservators. That gave them the power to make business deals in his name.

What's Bigger Than Big Data? Brain Data.
What's Bigger Than Big Data? Brain Data.

The petition also claims that Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, along with their two birth children, made millions of dollars in royalties from the Oscar-winning movie based on Oher’s life. The movie earned nearly $256 million in its first theatrical release, but Oher said he received nothing for his life story.

The Tuohys, for their part, have slammed Oher’s claims, calling them a “shakedown effort” to get millions of dollars from them. They announced in a press conference that they were seeking a consent order to terminate Oher’s conservatorship.

It’s the second time in recent years that a celebrity has claimed they were placed under an abusive conservatorship. In 2021, Britney Spears regained control of her life and finances when a judge suspended her conservatorship.

UVA Today talked to Naomi Cahn, a professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Law and an expert in family law, about conservatorships and Oher’s petition.

Q. Why would somebody be placed under a conservatorship?

A. Conservatorships are legal mechanisms to help people who are considered unable to care for themselves or their finances. Conservatorships are often thought of in the context of people who are older, but anybody can be placed under a conservatorship, so age doesn’t matter. There are different kinds of conservatorships. Some conservators have legal authority only over the financial aspects of someone’s life, but other conservators have more expansive powers, such as choosing where the person will live.

You can think of someone who is mentally incapacitated, like someone who is deep into dementia or hospitalized and unable to communicate. They are designed to protect people who cannot care for themselves.

Q. Why do conservatorships seem so easy to abuse?

A. It’s important to recognize that conservatorships can be incredibly useful. You hear stories of people who are wiring tens of thousands of dollars to strangers in other countries, and conservatorships can prevent that. But they can be easy to abuse because there’s limited oversight. Generally, a conservator is supposed to provide an annual report to the court on the financial aspects of the conservatorship. That’s very little oversight, however, and under-resourced courts may be unable to do the requisite monitoring.  Indeed, data from states on conservatorships can be difficult to collect.

Q. How does Oher’s case compare to Spears’?

A. The law differs from state to state. [Oher’s] is in Tennessee, and [Spears’] was in California. It sounds like – and I have to emphasize we don’t know the details – the conservatorships began under different circumstances. Oher appears to have signed something agreeing to the conservatorship.

There’s also the fact that Britney Spears’ father was appointed conservator. And for Oher, it was people who are otherwise legal strangers to him.

Q. Have there been any meaningful reforms to conservatorships since Spears’ case?

A. Let’s remember that conservatorships are state-by-state, and yes, there have been some reforms, including in California (where Spears’ conservatorship occurred). There are national movements, including from the American Bar Association, to reform conservatorships. U.S. Sen. Robert Casey from Pennsylvania has introduced a bill to look at alternatives to guardianships. There have been calls for better data and more transparency and more safeguards against abuse. But again, much of this needs to be done on a state-by-state basis.

Portrait of Naomi Cahn
Naomi Cahn, a professor at the UVA School of Law, says conservatorships are useful, but easy to abuse because of a lack of oversight. (Photo by Julia Davis)

Some states, including Virginia, are moving toward something called supported decision-making. It’s a model in which the individual is still making their own decisions.

Q. What could Oher have found that made him realize he wasn’t adopted like he thought?

A. It sounds like he now has attorneys who are helping him sort through all of this. A conservatorship is different from an adoption: with adoption, once a child reaches the age of 18, they can make their own decisions. They don’t need consent to marry, they don’t need consent to enter contracts.

If it had been an order of adoption, as soon as he turned 18, he would then be able to make all of his own agreements and contracts. With a conservatorship, by contrast, it looks like all contracts and agreements would have gone through the conservator.

It’s important, whenever anyone signs a legal document, to retain copies!

Q. Why would the legal system have placed Oher under a conservatorship?

A. Conservatorships can be voluntary in many states,  but they can be imposed involuntarily, too. Tennessee law provides that there must be clear and convincing evidence that the respondent is fully or partially disabled and that the respondent needs assistance before a conservator can be appointed, but it’s important to emphasize that we don’t have enough information about what actually happened here.

Q. What legal recourse does Oher have, besides having the conservatorship suspended?

A. He can ask the court with jurisdiction over the guardianship for further investigation, he can ask the court to freeze any assets subject to the conservatorship. Outside of the guardianship system,  he can sue for damages resulting from breach of fiduciary duty or fraud. Depending on the nature of what happened, there could be criminal charges could also be brought, if, for example, there was, say, embezzlement or some sort of criminal activity.

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Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications