What is a conservatorship? Michael Oher, Britney Spears and the complicated power dynamics of the legal arrangement

Michael Oher in Baltimore Ravens football gear sitting on the bench
Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher sits on the bench during the first half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Baltimore. Michael Oher, the former NFL tackle known for the movie “The Blind Side,” filed a petition Monday in a Tennessee probate court accusing Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy of lying to him by having him sign papers making them his conservators rather than his adoptive parents nearly two decades ago. AP Photo/Nick Wass, File

Michael Oher, a former NFL tackle whose life story inspired the hit movie “The Blind Side,” has filed a lawsuit claiming that the adoption story behind the film was a lie. Specifically, the suit alleges that Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy tricked Oher into thinking they were his adoptive parents when he signed papers that created a conservatorship, granting the pair legal authority over Oher’s personal and financial affairs.

Oher, who is 37, has petitioned to have the conservatorship he was placed under when he was 18 terminated. He also is seeking a share of the profits he claims he should have earned from the movie, and an injunction to prevent the Tuohys from using his name and likeness, according to The New York Times.

The case puts the arcane legal arrangement back in the public spotlight after it was revealed that pop star Britney Spears had been living under a conservatorship for more than a decade.

Northeastern Global News spoke to Margo Lindauer, Northeastern University School of Law clinical professor, who offered some insight into conservatorships, and the complicated power dynamics they often lead to. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you explain to us what a conservatorship is, and what kind of control it confers?

headshot of Margo Lindauer
Margo Lindauer, Northeastern University School of Law clinical professor, poses for a portrait. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Essentially, it’s a petition that an individual makes to a court when there is reason to believe that an adult can’t take care of themselves. Typically, it applies in fiscal matters, so a person’s finances. It is triggered when a person cannot make fiscally responsible decisions for themselves. Those decisions are then made by someone else, the conservator. Oftentimes a conservatorship goes along with a guardianship. Guardianships typically involve the appointment of someone to manage someone else’s medical needs.

Frequently that person is part of a family. There are also sometimes, to the best of my understanding, fees associated with being a conservator, like a trustee, so that person or family member can make money off of being a conservator. And then, of course, it can and does become more complicated as the individual who is the subject of the conservatorship has a lot of money. We’ve seen this with people like Brittney Spears.

When conservatorships are over people who have a lot of money or income-earning potential, or who don’t fully understand the contracts that they are in, the implications can be very problematic. 

The interesting thing in this case is that, as far as I know, is that Michael Oher was under the impression that he was adopted. Adoption is usually, but not always, for children — for people under the age of 18. But there are lots of other ways to bring someone into your family beyond legal adoption. For example, it sounds like this family has some means, money or access to money. They could have left money for this adult child in their will, they could have shared property with him. A conservatorship is not that; it’s usually for people who don’t have the capacity, or are unable, to make some of these decisions for themselves. 


All things considered, it seems like the best argument for the use of a conservatorship is tied to medical concerns. Do you agree?

When you think about the Britney Spears case, the medical piece was a huge part of it. She has a significant, very severe mental health disorder. She, to the best of our knowledge, didn’t want to participate in treatment or take her medication; so the conservatorship was, in part, to force her to engage in that medical treatment — and maybe violently. But that was one of the arguments. The other argument was that she didn’t have the ability to safely or prudently manage her money, and that people were taking advantage of her, and putting her, her family and her kids in dangerous situations. In that case, what we would call as lawyers the “condition precedent,” or the presenting issue, was very obvious, which was that this person was not thriving.

Are there instances of successful conservatorship outcomes that come to mind?

That’s the part I can’t comment on, because we are hearing about these very public ones that have maybe gone off the rails. I think the thing that is interesting to me from a public policy perspective is that the process of the guardianship, where you can petition for guardianship over an adult, which is different from conservatorship in some states. The spidey sense in my brain is that what pushes people to file for conservatorship, as it is understood, is the partial financial opportunity.

Can you talk about the power dynamics at play in this kind of conservatorship — the one alleged by Oher?

In this case, there’s so many things at play even before the conservatorship went into effect. Here you have a kid, a Black boy who is in state custody, to the best of my understanding, in high school where he is a football player. He is housing-unstable, does not have a strong family network, does not have any financial stability, and this wealthy family — this white family — brings him in. So already there are power dynamics at play, and a conservatorship exacerbates all of those and more, because at the heart of abuse is the idea that power is being used disproportionately. In a conservatorship, one party has power over another party to make decisions on their behalf. If the conservator party is making decisions that are putting the other party in danger, or that are not in their best interest, that is inherently abusive. 

That’s where it gets tricky in these cases that we read about, where you have to stop and question: Are they making these decisions because they’re in the subject of the conservatorship’s best interest, or are they making these decisions because they want to make a buck?

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at t.stening@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.