Wendy Williams’ Guardianship Explained by a Probate Lawyer
In this article, Keystone’s conservatorship attorneys dissect the Wells Fargo/Wendy Williams guardianship matter and analyze the legality of Wells Fargo’s actions.
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*Please note that Wendy Williams’ Wells Fargo case is taking place in New York, where the legal arrangement she is under is called a financial guardianship. In California, this same arrangement is referred to as a conservatorship of the estate. As a result, we will be using both terms interchangeably throughout the article.
TV personality Wendy Williams, 57, allegedly requested her bank statements from Wells Fargo at the start of the year to find that not only had the financial institution restricted her from accessing them, but that it had also frozen her bank accounts and petitioned the court for a temporary financial guardianship over her. The motive behind Wells Fargo’s actions supposedly was to protect Williams’ finances, because Williams’ Wells Fargo financial adviser, Lori Schiller, had notified the bank that the former talk show host was of “unsound mind.” Williams, who denies this claim, has been fighting ever since to regain access to her bank accounts and end the guardianship.
Williams’ highly publicized dispute with Wells Fargo comes on the heels of the controversial Britney Spears’ conservatorship case, which was the subject of the “Free Britney” movement and culminated in the termination of the 13-year conservatorship in 2021. While both cases have come under public scrutiny and spotlighted the potential harm and ethics violations that could result from conservatorships, there are many instances in which conservatorships are not only necessary but can greatly benefit the person they were enacted to protect.
That being said, did Wells Fargo have a right to freeze Wendy Williams’ bank accounts? Is Wendy Williams’ guardianship warranted? Is the Wendy Williams vs. Wells Fargo dispute likely to end in the star’s favor? Could Wells Fargo or another bank freeze your accounts for similar reasons? Keystone’s probate attorneys address these questions and more in this article on Wendy Williams’ conservatorship of the estate.
What Is Guardianship?
The definition of guardianship varies depending on the state in which you are located. In New York (where the Wendy Williams/Wells Fargo dispute is taking place), a guardianship (which is called an Article 81 case and is filed under Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law) is a legal arrangement designed to protect an incapacitated person.
According to the New York State Unified Court System website, a person is considered “incapacitated” if they are:
- Incapable of managing their own property and/or personal needs
- Are likely to be harmed because they cannot understand the consequences of not being able to manage their property and/or personal needs
The same website states that at the start of a guardianship case, the proposed subject of the guardianship is referred to as an “alleged incapacitated person” (AIP) because their alleged inability to handle their own affairs is only the petitioner’s opinion. In other words, the AIP’s incapacitation has not yet been proven.
The courts generally do their due diligence in ensuring that a guardianship is actually warranted before granting one since this type of arrangement can severely limit a person’s rights. If, after reviewing evidence and testimony, the court declares the AIP to be incapacitated, then the proposed Article 81 guardian must complete guardianship training and be approved by the court prior to being officially appointed to their role. While it is usually a family member who acts as a person’s guardian, the court can also appoint a previously trained guardian or social service agency to take on the role, according to the New York State Unified Court System website.
The same site goes on to state that an Article 81 guardian can be appointed to manage a person’s welfare, property or both. Once a guardian is appointed, the judge will specify what decisions the guardian can make and what decisions the incapacitated person can make based on the latter’s needs.
In California, legal arrangements designed to protect incapacitated adults are referred to as conservatorships. On the other hand, guardianships are legal arrangements designed to protect minors. The process for obtaining a conservatorship in California is similar to the process for obtaining a guardianship in New York, although there are some notable differences. For example, proposed conservators in California are not required to undergo training, as they are in New York.
What Is Financial Guardianship?
Wendy Williams’ guardianship is a financial guardianship (called a “conservatorship of the estate” in California), which means that its purpose is to protect her money and property. A financial guardianship is generally granted as a result of evidence and testimony being presented to the court that demonstrates a person’s inability to competently manage their own finances and/or protect themselves from financial exploitation and/or undue influence.
It is common for a financial guardian in New York to have the following duties:
- Paying bills
- Making gifts on behalf of the person
- Managing the person’s assets
- Entering into contracts
It’s important to note that the duties of a financial guardian can vary depending on the specific powers that have been granted to them by the New York courts.
Timeline for the Wendy Williams and Wells Fargo Bank Dispute
The battle over who has a right to control Wendy Williams’ Wells Fargo accounts began at the start of 2022, but as of September, it has still not been resolved. We provide a timeline of events related to the Wendy Williams vs. Wells Fargo dispute below.
July 2021 – Williams makes her final appearance on her talk show The Wendy Williams Show, though she did not know it would be her last show at the time, as she expected to return in fall of that year.
September 2021 – Reports surface that Williams has been transported to a New York hospital following a call to 911 for an individual in need of psychiatric services.
November 2021 – Further reports surface that Williams is suffering from early-onset dementia. Her brother Tommy Williams publicly denies these claims, stating that she is not suffering from any such ailment.
January 2022 – According to Williams’ attorney La’Shawn Thomas, Williams makes a request to Wells Fargo for her bank account statements because she suspects misconduct by her financial adviser and needs her most recent bank statements to switch to another financial institution.
January 2022 – After receiving notice from Williams’ financial adviser Lori Schiller that the TV host is of “unsound mind,” Wells Fargo freezes Willams’ bank accounts and petitions the court to have her placed under a temporary financial guardianship, citing risks of “financial exploitation, dementia, or undue influence” in the court filing.
February 2022 – As a result of Wells Fargo’s claims that Williams is a possible victim of financial exploitation, the TV personality fires her entire management team, including Schiller and Bernie Young, her financial advisers.
February 2022 – Williams’ legal team files an emergency order with the New York Supreme Court for her Wells Fargo bank accounts to be unfrozen. In the petition, Williams claims that the bank is in “possession of several million dollars’ worth of funds” and that she has been denied access to those funds for upward of two weeks, which has led her to default or risk defaulting on her bills. The petition further claims that Wells Fargo is breaching its fiduciary duty to Williams, causing her to suffer “imminent and irreparable financial damage.” Williams argues that the claims surrounding her alleged incapacity were falsified and that despite terminating her problematic advisers, Wells Fargo continues to deny her access to her accounts. Williams demands that she and her team be granted access to her Wells Fargo accounts within 48 hours.
February 2022 – The Wendy Williams Show is permanently canceled.
March 2022 – Young, the financial adviser who Williams previously terminated, files a petition to be appointed Williams’ financial guardian, even though Williams claims that she wants nothing to do with him.
March 2022 – The court appoints an unnamed temporary financial guardian for Williams, agreeing with Wells Fargo that a temporary guardian is necessary while the Wendy Williams and Wells Fargo bank case is pending.
March 2022 – In response to Williams’ claim that she risks defaulting on bills due to Wells Fargo freezing her assets, the banking giant releases a statement that, in part, reads: “Wells Fargo’s priority is the financial well-being of Ms. Williams and the preservation of her privacy. … As we have expressed to the Court, Wells Fargo is open to working with Ms. Williams’ counsel to release funds directly to her creditors for bills historically and regularly paid from her accounts.”
March 2022 – Williams posts a video to Instagram in which she claims, among other things, that Young used approximately $100,000 of her money to hire a law firm to pursue a guardianship over her. She also alleges that a former doctor, whom she fired, had sent her medical information to Schiller, her former financial adviser, who then shared it with Wells Fargo without her consent.
May 2022 – A New York judge appoints an unnamed guardian to control Williams’ finances until at least July. This new guardianship removes Wells Fargo from having an operational role in Wendy Williams’ financial guardianship dispute.
May 2022 – Williams is interviewed by rapper Fat Joe and reveals to him that she has only $2 to her name. News outlets describe her as “rambling” during the interview, leading many to question whether she is indeed suffering from neurological and/or mental health issues.
August 2022 – Thomas, Williams’ former lawyer, speaks out about the Wendy Williams vs. Wells Fargo dispute, issuing this statement to Page Six: “The real issue is that Wells Fargo, through their adviser, refused to grant Wendy access to her own accounts, this includes the right to check her balance. No bank should have the authority to do that. No one attempted to gain access to any of Wendy’s accounts. The Wells Fargo adviser and [former manager Bernie Young] were the only people with access. … They left Wendy to die.”
The question on many people’s minds is: Did Wendy Williams get her money from Wells Fargo yet? As of September, the answer to that question remains no. While Wells Fargo no longer directly controls Williams’ finances, she is still under a financial guardianship, which means that her finances are controlled by her financial guardian.
Why Did Wells Fargo Freeze Wendy Williams’ Account?
Upon learning that Wendy Williams’ Wells Fargo account is frozen, it is natural to wonder: Does a bank have a right to do that? After all, we place our trusts in banks to securely hold our funds and release them to us upon our request. Under what conditions can a bank deny us access to our own hard-earned assets?
In its petition, Wells Fargo justified its decision to freeze the TV mogul’s accounts by citing its authority under various client contracts to “pause or reject instructions for a proposed transaction,” pending judicial or administrative remedies, in the event “exploitation, dementia or undue influence” is suspected.
Because New York has sealed the Wendy Williams financial guardianship case, it is impossible to know exactly what factors led to Wells Fargo freezing Williams’ assets and petitioning for Wendy Williams to be placed under financial guardianship. Many of Williams’ supporters are claiming that the court has ulterior motives in keeping the documents surrounding Wendy Williams guardianship case sealed.
Is Wendy Williams’ Financial Guardianship Genuinely Needed?
As far as whether Wells Fargo’s actions toward Wendy Williams were warranted, it’s hard to say without analyzing the court documents, which have been sealed. What can be said, however, is that courts do typically do their due diligence in deciding whether or not a guardianship/conservatorship is needed, since the effect of such an arrangement is an adult being stripped of some of their most basic rights.
Before approving or denying a guardianship/conservatorship, courts generally hold a hearing in which both sides have an opportunity to present evidence and testimony. In Williams’ case, the court decided to place her under a temporary financial guardianship first, and later, officially appointed an anonymous financial guardian, who may or may not be the same temporary guardian that was appointed in March, to remain in the role until at least July; however, as of September, the guardian is still in place. No reason has been provided as to why.
Was There No Other Way for Wells Fargo to Protect Wendy Williams’ Finances?
Guardianships, such as Williams’, are generally established as a last resort. This is due to how restrictive they can be. If there is another less-restrictive way to adequately protect an incapacitated adult, the court may decide against approving the guardianship petition. While Williams allegedly granted her son, Kevin Jr., power of attorney, giving him the authority to manage both her finances and welfare, the court evidently believed that these documents could not sufficiently protect Williams.
There is also the question of why no one in Williams’ orbit was given the opportunity to act as her financial guardian. Again, this question is difficult to answer due to the court documents being sealed, but it is possible that the court wanted a neutral third-party professional in the role instead of someone with close ties to Williams, who could more easily exploit her.
Before making a determination about whether or not a guardianship/conservatorship is needed, the court hears testimony and evidence; therefore, it is important to do what you can to ensure that testimony and evidence are skillfully presented to the court in a light that is most favorable to you. This is where having a skilled attorney on your team, whether you are seeking a guardianship/conservatorship or fighting a guardianship/conservatorship, can make all the difference.
Could Wendy Williams Have Taken Precautions to Avoid Being Placed Under Guardianship?
Technically, Wendy Williams was taking precautions when she granted her son power of attorney, as previously mentioned; however, there are additional safeguards that can be put in place to potentially avoid the need for a guardianship/conservatorship. For example, if the allegedly incompetent person has placed their assets in trust and designated a successor trustee to manage the trust assets in the event of their incapacity, a guardianship/conservatorship may be able to be avoided. Something else Williams could have done was to designate someone via her estate planning documents to act as her guardian in the event of her incapacitation. This way, even if she did have to cede control of her finances to a guardian, it would be to a guardian of her choice.
The reality is that even if appropriate safeguards are put in place, they will not guarantee that a guardianship/conservatorship will not be necessary. For example, the person nominated as power of attorney or successor trustee could be unfit to fulfill their role, or they could refuse it. In other cases, the nominee actually may be perpetrating financial abuse against the allegedly incompetent person, rendering the nominee unfit to act. In these instances, a guardianship/conservatorship may be the only viable means of protecting the allegedly incompetent person.
Wendy Williams/Wells Fargo Update: Will Williams Regain Control of Her Finances?
There are currently no updates on the status of Wendy Williams and Wells Fargo’s legal battle, and as of August, the Wendy Williams financial guardianship was still ongoing. Wells Fargo has been taking a back seat in Wendy Williams’ guardianship since the court appointed a financial guardian, who is now the one in charge of overseeing her finances. This means that Wells Fargo now only carries out financial transactions for Williams if it is directed to do so by her court-appointed guardian, who may or may not have to discuss financial decisions with Williams prior to making them.
Williams’ former lawyer stressed that Williams was unhappy with both her appointed guardian and with the terms of her financial guardianship, one of which being that she receives a minimal allowance. Williams’ dissatisfaction with her guardianship is understandable, given that she is someone who is used to having millions of dollars at her disposal.
New York does allow guardianships to be contested by an opposing party filing a cross-petition; the party could be anyone from the subject of the proposed guardianship themselves to one of their family members or friends who is not in agreement with the proposed choice of guardian. Because it is unclear what has transpired thus far in the Wendy Williams guardianship matter due to the secrecy in which the case is shrouded, it is difficult to know what Williams’ options are in disputing the arrangement. Chances are that she has already contested the guardianship with help from her lawyer, but she was unsuccessful in convincing the court that she has the capacity to manage her own finances.
How Is Wendy Williams’ Health?
Williams has been public about suffering from serious medical issues, such as the immune system disorder Graves’ disease, Covid-19, and addiction. In 2019, she also revealed on her talk show that she had been residing in a sober home since her 21-year marriage dissolved due to her husband’s infidelity and the child she had out of wedlock. It’s possible one or more of these medical issues could have served as a reason for guardianship.
While it is impossible to know how Wendy Williams’ guardianship case will play out without having access to the court documents, it is safe to assume those close to her, as well as her fans, will continue to fight to help Williams regain control of her hard-earned assets (in the same way people did for Britney Spears).
It is conceivable that the court will order for control over Wendy Williams’ Wells Fargo assets to be returned to the talk show host; however, because she has already been deemed as incapacitated by the court, it will likely be an uphill battle for her to prove that she is capable of managing her millions.
Can a Bank Freeze My Accounts?
Wendy Williams’ guardianship woes can make anyone fearful about the safety of their bank accounts. In Williams’ case, Wells Fargo had a clause within the agreements she signed that enabled them to pause or reject instructions for a proposed transaction if exploitation, dementia or undue influence was suspected. A good way to ensure your account cannot be wrongfully frozen is to carefully inspect all the agreements you sign with a bank, or better, have an experienced attorney inspect them.
Banks are entitled to freeze assets for a variety of reasons, including fraudulent activity and assets being used to commit crime, among other things. But another way to look at this issue is to consider the possibility that the bank is actually trying to protect your assets from harm. If there are suspicious transactions or you do not appear to be of sound mind, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing for your assets to be temporarily frozen, as one wrong move could deplete them. Furthermore, the probate court has the power to unfreeze the assets, so you will have an opportunity to argue your case for the release of the frozen funds.
If you learn that your bank account is frozen, be sure to hire an attorney as soon as possible to protect your financial interests and help you regain control of your finances (if doing so is possible under the circumstances).