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Disney Heiress Case Spotlights the Importance of Conservatorships

Estate planning is not limited to providing for your affairs after your death. Unexpected health problems may leave you unable to manage your affairs during your lifetime. In such cases, a court may name a conservator for your person or estate unless you have provided for such appointments in advance through a document such as a durable power of attorney.

A properly executed conservatorship can protect your interests from unscrupulous relatives or other third parties who might try and take advantage of your situation. A recent California case illustrates how the law governing conservatorships can apply in a given situation. In this particular case, a woman voluntarily asked a court to appoint a conservator, then later opposed attempts by hostile family members to keep the conservatorship going.

Lund v. Lund

Michelle Lund, a granddaughter of the late Walt Disney, suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm in 2009. She required surgery, extended hospitalization and several months of intense rehabilitation. During her recovery, Lund suffered from severe memory impairment. She later said in court she “could not hold a thought for more than 20 seconds.”

Due to this cognitive impairment, Lund asked a probate court to appoint conservators for her person and estate. She named a longtime friend as conservator for her person (someone to make healthcare decisions for her) and two longtime family financial advisers to manage her assets.

At the conclusion of her rehab, a neuropsychologist found that while Lund continued to struggle with memory problems, her “high level problem solving or executive functions” remained intact. The doctor said Lund’s long-term memory handicap was manageable through various therapeutic techniques.

Based on this diagnosis, the probate court agreed to Lund’s request to terminate the two conservatorships. Lund’s father and stepmother disagreed with this decision and subsequently filed their own petition seeking a new conservatorship solely over Lund’s estate. Michelle Lund previously revoked a power of attorney naming her father, William Lund, as agent to make healthcare decisions for her. And during the prior conservatorship, Lund’s conservators prevented William Lund and his wife from seeing Michelle or interfering with her affairs.

William and Sherry Lund argued in court that Michelle was under the undue influence of various “handlers” keeping her from her family. Michelle Lund and other witnesses testified that her relationship with her father was negative even before her aneurysm. And while Michelle Lund admitted she was not completely aware of the state her finances, she noted that as the beneficiary of several Disney family trusts-worth hundreds of millions of dollars-she had more income than she “spends or needs” and relied on people she trusted to manage her affairs.

The trial court ultimately rejected William and Sherry Lund’s petition for a new conservatorship and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The appellate court noted that California law imposes a “heightened burden of proof” to establish an involuntary conservatorship. There is a legally rebuttable presumption that Michelle Lund has the capacity to make her own decisions. The burden was on her father and stepmother to prove she was unable to do so or resist the “undue influence” of others over her. As noted above, the only provable mental defect Lund suffered from was memory impairment, which her physician testified could be managed. Accordingly, the trial court and appeals court agreed there was insufficient evidence to warrant a new conservatorship.

Who Will Manage Your Affairs?

This type of case emphasizes the importance of making provisions in your estate plan for cases of extended disability. This includes nominating persons to oversee your personal healthcare decisions as well as your finances. In many situations, these need not be the same persons. As always, you should work with an experienced San Diego estate planning attorney who can advise you of all your options. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soday today if you have any questions.

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