The Difference Between Adoption and Conservatorship Explained

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Retired football player Michael Oher recently alleged he was under a court-imposed conservatorship instead of an adoption with Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. Conservatorships and adoptions are two very different legal proceedings and the resulting relationships are distinct. Conservatorships are for people who can not care for themselves or manage their finances and one must consent for adoption, which also requires the severance of any existing parental rights.

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What’s the difference between adoption and conservatorship? Millions of dollars and the freedom to make your own choices, if you ask retired football player Michael Oher. Oher, whose story was made into the 2009 movie "The Blind Side," says he believed he signed papers to be adopted by an affluent white couple, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, in 2004. But papers filed in court recently indicate Oher was in fact never adopted. Rather, he has been under a court-imposed conservatorship all this time. Further, it is alleged that the arrangement allowed the Tuohys to "gain financial advantages" by striking deals in Oher’s name.

The Tuohys have denied any financial benefit from Oher's conservatorship

The Tuohys’ attorneys have pushed back, saying that Oher had long known he wasn’t formally adopted and that the conservatorship was necessary for his college football aspirations. Their current attorney has also said he believes the long timeline for getting an adoption – compared with the relatively speedy conservatorship process – played a role in their decision.

As the high-profile legal drama continues to unfold, Leigh Anne Tuohy’s personal website still describes Michael Oher as the couple’s "adopted son." .

Leigh Anne Tuohy has a website that still states Michael Oher as her adopted son

As a law school professor who teaches trusts and estates as well as family law, I have been intrigued by the precise connections between the Tuohys and Oher. A conservatorship and an adoption are two very different legal proceedings, and the resulting relationships are entirely distinct.

What is a conservatorship? .

Conservatorships are legal mechanisms to help people who can’t care for themselves or their finances – for example, due to advanced dementia. They’re typically not for people like Oher who have been signing their own contracts or writing their own books. The goal is to protect a vulnerable person’s well-being and their assets from being misused. Another recent conservatorship in the news, that of Britney Spears, was also the subject of contentious legal proceedings, although the conservator in that case was her father.

Conservatorships often applied to elder people with dementia who can not manage their assets and finances

Adoption is a different legal process that results in a new parent-child relationship. Parents have certain rights and responsibilities for their children, but once a child turns 18 – regardless of whether they are adopted – they are legal adults: They can make their own medical decisions, enter into their own contracts and get married without any parental involvement. People in conservatorships don’t typically have the same kind of freedom.

A conservator is appointed by the court and their goal is to protect the vulnerable person's well-being and assets

In Tennessee, where the Tuohys live, parents are not required to support their children once they graduate from high school. But the existence of a parent-child relationship remains meaningful even after a child turns 18. For example, parents andchildren may have legal inheritance rights, or children may be required to pay for a parent’s necessities.

The Tuohys say they were told that they couldn’t adopt an adult. But under Tennessee law, as in many other states, adoption can take place at any age. To be sure, in Tennessee, anyone 14 or older needs to consent for the adoption to take place. So Oher would have had to agree – which he says he thought he did.

Unlike adoption, people in conservatorship don't have the same freedom and autonomy

In addition, adoption typically requires ending the rights o any existing legal parents, a process called severance of parental rights. The court would have needed to approve the transfer of rights from Oher’s biological parents to the Tuohys.

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