Nichelle Nichols Conservatorship Battle Sheds Light on Estate Plannning for Incapacity

Walnut Creek Estate Planning Attorney, Kirsten Howe, Comments on How Nichelle Nichols could have avoided a battle over her abilities to care for herself.

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85-year-old actress, Nichelle Nichols, famously known for portraying Lieutenant Uhura on the original “Star Trek,” is currently the subject of a conservatorship battle pending in Los Angeles Superior Court. Nichols’ son, Kyle Johnson, filed the petition for conservatorship in May and succeeded in persuading the court to appoint four temporary conservators to take control of his mother’s legal, financial and personal affairs.

“Conservatorship is a court-supervised procedure, designed to protect people who, due to mental illness, brain damage or development issues, dementia, and other reasons, are incapable of managing their own affairs,” says leading Walnut Creek estate planning attorney Kirsten Howe. “What happens is a petitioner, often a family member, begins the process by filing a petition for the appointment of a conservator. In Nichols’ case, her son requested that four licensed professional fiduciaries be appointed, not himself. These cases then proceed to the judge, who holds a hearing and appoints the conservator on a temporary basis, followed by another hearing a few months later. In the interim, the court’s own investigator will talk to the subject (in this case, Nichelle Nichols), to the family members and other relevant persons, and file a report for the judge to consider. A physician who has examined the subject also submits a statement detailing the subject’s condition and capabilities. The judge will appoint an attorney to represent the subject.”

In addition to the ongoing investigation, other interested persons have an opportunity to submit their pleadings before the second hearing. In Nichols’ case, her friend, Angelique Fawcette, has filed a pleading asserting that Nichelle Nichols does not need a conservator.  Nichols’ son, Kyle Johnson, subsequently filed court documents asking that he be named the permanent conservator of his mother’s person and that Marina del Rey psychologist B.J. Hawkins be appointed the permanent conservator of the actress’ estate to manage her financial matters. A hearing on the Johnson-Hawkins appointments is scheduled November 8.

Kirsten adds, “Conservatorships can be very messy, even ugly, processes. Because they are taking place in court, everything is on public display. Because everyone must be represented by an attorney – the petitioner, the conservator and the subject – it can get very expensive. And, unfortunately, sometimes people have less than honorable motivations for becoming involved in the case, and the case can become a battlefield where family relationships are destroyed.”

Estate planning for incapacity is one aspect that doesn’t get the attention it should, which can cause a great deal of difficulty for family members.

Estate planning for incapacity must include:

  1. Designation of a successor trustee to manage trust assets;
  2. Designation of an agent under a power of attorney to manage legal, financial and personal affairs as well as assets not held in trust;
  3. Designation of an agent under a health care directive to make medical and personal care decisions; and
  4. Nomination of a conservator.

Howe concludes, “If Nichelle Nichols had done items one, two, and three, chances are a conservatorship would not be needed. She would already have identified the people who would step in and start managing things for her, and they would have full legal authority to do so without having to go to court.”

The case is set for another hearing on September 10, to determine whether the temporary conservatorship should be made permanent.

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