Jay Leno is filing for conservatorship of his wife’s estate — but he could have done this instead

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Comedian Jay Leno is in the midst of a serious situation: having to file for a conservatorship of his wife’s estate after her dementia diagnosis. 

The former “Tonight Show” host petitioned the Superior Court of California on Friday to be named conservator of the estate of his wife, Mavis Leno, who is experiencing cognitive decline. Leno is looking to create an estate plan as his wife of 43 years “would execute if she had the capacity to do so,” court documents obtained by MarketWatch show.  

The petition and potential conservatorship could have been avoided with advanced estate planning. Documents such as powers of attorney and healthcare proxies are created to allow individuals to choose whom they trust to manage their finances and overall well-being if they are unable to care for themselves.

“All of this boils down to this: not having an estate plan,” said Brian Tully, the founder and managing partner of Tully Law Group. 

The petition shows Leno, 73, wishes to create a trust that would include his and his wife’s community property and provide her with the care she needs if he were to die before her. It would also dispose of their assets when they have both died, and provide for her family members, the documents said. The couple doesn’t have children.

“The conservatorship estate will not be funded with any assets and is being established for the sole purpose of filing a petition for substituted judgment to ensure Mavis’s estate plan is established and that Mavis’s future care is provided for under the terms of a living trust,” the statement said. 

The court records also include paperwork from Dr. Hart Cohen, a California physician who sees Mavis Leno as a patient. The doctor’s capacity declaration explains in detail the magnitude of Mavis Leno’s cognitive impairments, as well as a written statement saying she is unable to attend the April 9 court hearing because of her medical inability. 

“It is my further opinion that if Mavis were ordered to attend the hearing such mandated attendance would cause her undue stress, confusion and anguish and therefore her presence at the hearing would be detrimental to her mental and physical health,” Cohen said in a statement.

Conservatorships have spent a lot of time in the spotlight in recent years, mainly due to unpleasant scenarios involving celebrities. Pop singer Britney Spears, who was in a conservatorship for 14 years under her father’s authority, was released in 2021 after fans protested she was being treated unfairly. Actress Amanda Bynes was also under a conservatorship held by her parents for nine years; a judge terminated the arrangement in 2022 after all parties agreed to end it.

Power of attorney is a document that provides another person with the authority to handle legal and financial affairs if someone is incapacitated, though there are also versions that allow individuals to act on another’s behalf if they’re unavailable, such as living overseas for half the year. Not all power-of-attorney documents are sufficient for estate planning, Tully said, in which case individuals should seek a “durable modified power of attorney,” which can assist with matters related to elder care and other aging issues. 

A healthcare proxy is similar, but focuses on medical necessities. 

There’s no age or asset requirement for proper estate planning. These documents can protect a person’s wishes for their overall care and personal management in the event of incapacity, Tully said.

“It’s not just an age or money thing — it’s an adult thing,” he added. 

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