“Star Trek” actress Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Lt. Nyota Uhura, is reportedly suffering from dementia. She is at the center of a conservatorship legal tug-o-war between her only child, Kyle Johnson; her former manager, and a concerned friend, all claiming to be acting in the trailblazing actress’ best interest.
After Johnson was appointed conservator of his mother in 2018, he sold her Los Angeles home and moved her to live with him in New Mexico. Nichols’ friends have tried to reach her but claim her son has denied them contact. Five years before Nichols was moved, one of her friends asked Nichols about her living situation and posted the response on YouTube. In the video, Nichols says she does not want anyone telling her what to do. She seems composed and clear-minded. A court granted guardianship to her son after he claimed his mother needed financial protection.
Guardianships can be abused
Cases involving conflicts with conservators and guardians are often difficult to defend against and seem to be on the rise. It is not uncommon for people at the center of these conflicts to find themselves cut off from family members by appointed conservators or guardians who have complete control over the finances of the elderly individual. Sometimes older people in these situations find they have little to no control over major decisions in their own lives, including being forced into elder care facilities against their will.
The National Council on Disability reports that over 1.5 million people are living under some form of guardianship, shifting control of an estimated $50 billion dollars in combined in combined exploitation, neglect, and physical abuse. According to “Newsweek,” last year a desperate Florida woman escaped a care facility imposed by her guardian by using a phone and Facebook to get help.
Regardless of who is legally or morally right, there is no doubt conservatorships or guardianships can cause pain and heartache for all. It is a real-life battle unlike any Nichols ever encountered in her legendary role on “Star Trek.” And it’s not just the elderly who can become embroiled in these conflicts. Singer Britney Spears has also been in the news and courthouse recently fighting the conservatorship of her father, James “Jamie” Spears.
Steps can be taken to prevent these kinds of disputes over money and health care from destroying families and friendships. The agony inflicted on all sides in Nichols’ situation could have perhaps been avoided by advance planning, according to experts in elder law. Yet, many people fail to prepare for family care and estate issues and then are forced to endure the consequences. Here are five ways to protect all involved:
- All real estate agreements must be in writing. This can be a simple document signed by all parties, understanding that oral agreements or contracts are not legally binding.
- Adult children and their parents should have their own legal representation. These cases often have conflicts as to whether the parent was pressured to agree. If each side has representation, such claims can be prevented.
- Avoid joint ownership of real estate and financial accounts. A joint account can be jeopardized by poor financial decisions of either party, and the money is vulnerable to potentially malicious actions of the other joint owner. If a parent or child grows alienated from the other, either can empty out the account.
- Consider appointing power of attorney and/or a medical proxy. There are ways to indicate trust and confidence in an individual to carry out actions in the best interest of a parent or family member. Power of attorney grants legal authority for someone to act on another person’s behalf. A medical proxy bestows authority to make medical decisions.
- Consider guardianship as a last resort. A person can experience memory loss and mild confusion without needing to be stripped of their right to make their own decisions. Doing so can have heartbreaking consequences.