When Your Bank Thinks You Need a Guardian — Former Talk Show Host Wendy Williams v. Wells Fargo

When a loved one has mounting medical, financial, and mental health needs, a family may appoint a guardian or a conservator to assume legal guardianship over an adult. Guardianship cases have become more common in the public eye recently, as we’ve heard about Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes, Nichelle Nichols, and others in the news.

Before I explain what happened with former talk show host Wendy Williams and Wells Fargo Bank, I want to note that the terms “guardianship” and “conservatorship” are often confused, in large part because different states use these terms in different ways. A guardian in most states, including Virginia and DC, is a person appointed by the court who is responsible for the personal affairs of a person with diminished mental capacity, including responsibility for making decisions regarding the person’s health care, financial support, safety, therapeutic treatment, and residence. A conservator in most states, including Virginia and DC, is a person appointed by the court who is responsible for the financial and legal affairs of a person with diminished mental capacity who is unable to manage his or her own financial resources or resist fraud or undue influence. In many states, including Maryland (and New York, where the situation I will describe takes place), a conservator is called a “guardian of the property,” as distinguished from what those states call a “guardian of the person.”

Wendy Williams, 57, is a former talk show host whose popular daytime talk show was recently canceled after 13 years. Williams resides in New York City and was recently referred to by Wells Fargo as an “incapacitated person” who needs a guardianship to handle her bank accounts. Williams’ case is unusual compared to the other examples listed above, because it is not her family that is concerned about her mental capacity but rather her bank.

Wells Fargo Believes Wendy Williams’ Health and Erratic Behavior Were Cause for Concern

From July 2021 until fairly recently, when The Wendy Williams Show was officially canceled, Wendy Williams has been missing from her talk show, replaced by Sherri Shepherd. This was reportedly due to Williams experiencing some serious complications from Graves’ disease, an immune system disorder that results in hyperthyroidism and often results in irritability, fatigue, weight loss, rapid heartbeat, and bulging eyes. After her break from her talk show, Williams was seen just once in public while she was being led into her apartment in New York City wearing hospital socks and in a wheelchair.

Besides these health issues, Williams also allegedly suffered from alcohol addiction, which allegedly caused psychological problems and erratic behavior on the set of her talk show. She was allegedly inebriated at times on the set of the show and even during filming. She often appeared live dressed only in a robe and viewers allegedly noticed her slurring her words at times.

How the Bank’s Request for a Guardianship Came to Be

Wells Fargo Bank decided to freeze Williams’ funds claiming that they have “strong reasons” to believe that she is a victim of “undue influence and financial exploitation.” Wells Fargo mentioned that the reports were based on statements provided by Williams’ former financial adviser, Lori Schiller.

Schiller was allegedly of the opinion that Williams was “of unsound mind.” The adviser also alleged that she recently “witnessed signs of exploitation, including Wendy Williams’ own expressed apprehension” about people around her.

Based on Schiller’s report, Wells Fargo sent a letter to New York Supreme Court Judge Arlene Bluth on February 10, 2022, requesting a hearing to determine whether Williams needs a professional to intervene in her affairs.

“We are concerned about [Williams’] situation,” attorney David H. Pikus wrote on behalf of the bank .“It is our hope that the Guardianship Part [of the court] will imminently appoint a temporary guardian or evaluator to review the situation and ensure that [Williams’] affairs are being properly handled.” The bank requested to keep the case “under seal” to “preserve the confidential interests of the alleged incapacitated person.”

Williams Fights Back

Williams’ attorney Celeste N. McCaw filed an emergency petition last Friday claiming Wells Fargo had “for more than two weeks” denied the TV host access to her “accounts, assets and statements” after her former financial adviser Lori Schiller alleged Williams was “of unsound mind.”

McCaw said in court documents that Williams had fired Schiller as her adviser due to alleged wrongdoing involving her accounts as well as improper conduct in connection with their professional relationship. McCaw says that Williams “denies that she is the victim of undue influence and financial exploitation.” McCaw has requested a temporary restraining order against Wells Fargo to stop the bank “from freezing [Williams’] accounts and interfering with her right to access her financial assets and statements.”

Wendy Williams says she is back to good health and feels ‘ready’ to get back to her TV show. Putting her side of the story forward, she said, “[t]hey say that I need somebody to handle my account and I don’t want that. I want all my money. I want to see all my money that I’ve worked hard for my entire life.” Williams continued to say, “I don’t lie, I don’t cheat and I don’t steal. I am an honest, hard-working person.” She also explained how these circumstances resulted in her bank accounts being frozen and she could not pay her bills for almost two months. On Thursday, March 17, Williams made it perfectly clear that there was nothing to worry about. She concluded, “Health is very well. And I’ve actually had a few appointments. You know, I’m 57 now and I have the mind and body of a 25-year-old.”

A spokesperson for Wells Fargo said that they “deny any allegations of improper actions with respect to Ms. Williams’ accounts and are fully participating in a court process to reach a resolution that is in her best interest. The financial well-being of our clients is at the heart of everything we do.”

We’ll provide updates on how this situation plays out as they become available.

How Could Something Like This Have Been Prevented?

Guardianship or conservatorship is an extreme form of intervention in another person’s life because control over personal and/or financial decisions is transferred to someone else for an indefinite, often permanent period of time. Once established, it can be difficult to revoke. Therefore, guardianship or conservatorship should only be used as a last resort.

A Power of Attorney (POA), sometimes called a general power of attorney or a durable general power of attorney, is a document that you sign that gives someone the authority to make legally binding decisions on your behalf. The scope of a POA can be as narrow or as broad as you choose. You can grant POA to whomever you wish and you can revoke it whenever you wish, so long as you’re of sound mind.

A POA is most often signed as part of estate planning and incapacity planning by individuals who want to prepare for their own potential future incapacity. There are both financial powers of attorney and medical powers of attorney (the latter typically included as part of a larger document called an “advance medical directive”) empowering someone to make financial, health care, or other decisions on their behalf. Provided you sign a power of attorney and an advance medical directive while you are of sound mind, this will generally eliminate the need for any guardianship or conservatorship court proceedings.

Guardianship and/or Conservatorship Can Be Avoided if You Plan in Advance

Whether or not you believe you will be sick or unable to make important decisions someday, you never know what can happen or when it will happen. That’s why every adult should have both financial and medical powers of attorney in place. Signing these documents is called incapacity planning, and is an integral part of comprehensive estate planning. Powers of Attorney offer the peace of mind that someone you appoint can step in if and when needed to handle your legal and financial affairs and health care decisions. If you have not done incapacity planning or estate planning yourself, or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, the time to plan is now. Please contact us at any time to make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation:

Power of Attorney Lawyer Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Power of Attorney Lawyer Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Power of Attorney Lawyer Rockville: 301-519-8041
Power of Attorney Lawyer DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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