Attorney Ruby Wharton (left) and Shelby County Probate Court Judge Kathleen N. Gomes will be featured during a Zoom webinar on conservatorships on Friday. (Courtesy photos)

For lawyer Ruby Wharton and Shelby County Probate Court Judge Kathleen N. Gomes, getting a better handle on conservatorships is a community necessity with ample examples of individual need.

Wharton and Gomes are spearheading an effort to spotlight conservatorships, with a virtual event planned for Friday.

A conservatorship is a court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the “conservator”) to care for another adult (called the “conservatee”) who cannot care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances.

While many are unfamiliar with the term, mention the name Brittany Spears and there is a point of reference for the conversation. The pop-star is engaged in a high-profile battle with her father over his conservatorship of her considerable assets.

“I’ve been (handling cases) in Probate Court for 40 years,” said Wharton. “And I met Kathleen Gomes 30 years ago when we were both working on cases in probate. We would bring each other in on cases. So, I know her to be a good judge in probate, because of her years of practice.”

Wharton explained why events such as the upcoming panel discussion on conservatorships is a must-see for every family, regardless of financial standing. 

“Many people have no idea what Probate Court is,” said Wharton. “This is the court that deals with the widows and orphans. Probate Court deals with estate matters, the distribution of property – with or without a will. 

“Heirs are the spouse, first. If there is no spouse, then the children. And if there are no children, there may be a surviving parent.

“Conservatorships are also determined in Probate Court, and there are some things everyone should know.”

A Zoom webinar on Friday (Aug. 24), will feature Gomes, along with other professionals relevant in the naming of a conservator, such as a psychiatrist and a social worker.

The session begins at 11:30 a.m., and is titled “Probate & Estate Section: ‘Toxic’ and ‘Overprotected’ or ‘Gimme More?’: an In-Depth Panel Discussion on Tennessee Conservatorships.”

The highly publicized situation with Spears raises questions about what conservatorship is, said Gomes.

“Britney’s father is her conservator because there are clearly some mental issues with her. So clearly, conservatorships are not just for an elderly parent experiencing dementia.”

According to Tennessee law, a conservator or a co-conservator is a person, persons, or entity appointed by the Court to exercise the decision-making rights as practical under the particular circumstances for the person’s disability.

Gomes said a doctor must sign documents declaring it medically determined that a person has a disability that makes him or her unable to govern his or her own affairs.

Tennessee defines a person with a disability as “any person 18 years of age or older determined by the court to be in need of partial or full supervision, protection, and assistance by reason of mental illness, physical illness or injury, developmental disability, or other mental or physical incapacity.”

A conservatorship is a proceeding that removes the decision-making powers and duties in whole or part in the least restrictive manner from a person with a disability who lacks capacity to make decisions.

Most tend to think that Probate Court is only for the elderly and to settle matters after a death, said Wharton.

“That is true, but conservatorships can be determined and put in place before a tragedy takes place. Any of our lives can change in a moment. The issues being discussed on Friday are issues all families need to hear. …

“Generally, our people wait too long before they do anything about these matters,” said Wharton. 

She added, “The power of attorney, and decisions before there is a stroke or coma, or hospice, is really the right time to get this business in order. There are so many cases of elderly abuse that occur, and the court investigates. Families and individuals have so much peace of mind when those matters are in order.”

(To get the Zoom Link Meeting information for Friday’s panel, email: [email protected].)