Michael Oher: What’s the difference between conservatorship and adoption?


Talk about being blindsided.

Michael Oher, the former NFL lineman depicted in the 2009 movie “The Blind Side,” filed a petition Monday in a Tennessee probate court accusing Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy — whom he called “mom” and “dad” — of lying to him by having him sign papers that made them his conservators when he was a teenager, rather than his adoptive parents as he believed.

Oher, now 37, is accusing the Tuohys of enriching themselves at his expense, and he is asking the court for the conservatorship to be terminated and for him to be paid any money he is owed that the family earned off his name and likeness — including from the movie starring Sandra Bullock that was based on his life story.

“Oher discovered this lie to his chagrin and embarrassment in February of 2023, when he learned that the conservatorship to which he consented on the basis that doing so would make him a member of the Tuohy family, in fact provided him no familial relationship with the Tuohys,” the petition says.

On Wednesday, lawyers for Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, stated the couple intends to end their conservatorship for Oher.

So what is the difference between adoption and conservatorship?

Conservatorship is a legal concept whereby a person is appointed by a judge to manage the financial affairs or daily life of another person because of some limitation on the part of that person. The person whose affairs are being managed — the conservatee, as Oher was in this case — is defined, according to Cornell Law School’s legal encyclopedia, as someone who is “unable to handle [their affairs] due to their mental capacity, age, or physical disability.”

Generally, conservators have the power to make decisions on behalf of the conservatee in financial matters or personal affairs, such as investments, estate planning, endorsing checks, opening bank accounts and paying bills, legal experts told MarketWatch. Conservators are paid for their service out of the conservatee’s assets. Conservators can be family members or some outside the conservatee’s family.

One recent high-profile conservatorship was that of pop star Britney Spears, whose father’s 14-year conservatorship ended in 2021 following a lengthy legal battle. But conservatorships are more common among older people who suffer from intellectual disabilities like dementia and need assistance with financial, legal and medical matters.

See also: Amanda Bynes and Britney Spears were both under conservatorships — here’s what you can learn from them

Adoption, meanwhile, features legal guardians, who are slightly different from conservators.

When an adult adopts a child, they become the guardian of that child and incur “the rights and obligations of a parent,” according to Cornell Law. The guardian is responsible for managing the welfare of the adoptee.

Oher’s mother, Denise, had 12 children and suffered from alcoholism and a crack cocaine addiction, according to author Michael Lewis, who wrote the book that “The Blind Side” movie was based on.

According to Oher and his attorneys, he signed the conservatorship papers when he was 18, believing that they were papers for his adoption by the Tuohy family.

“Michael trusted the Tuohys and signed where they told him to sign. What he signed, however, and unknown to Michael until after February 2023, were not adoption papers, or the equivalent of adoption papers,” the petition states. Instead, the papers appointed Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy as his conservators.

Despite being 18 at the time, Oher could still have been legally adopted, legal experts confirmed. Adults can be adopted in certain situations, although adoption rules vary by state, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Conservatorship and guardianship also vary by state.

According to Oher’s legal filing, which was viewed by ESPN, the Tuohys and each of their two children received $225,000 for “The Blind Side,” plus 2.5% of the film’s “defined net proceeds.” The movie grossed over $300 million at the box office and was nominated for Best Picture at the 2010 Academy Awards. Bullock, who portrayed Leigh Anne Tuohy, won the Oscar for Best Actress. Oher’s petition alleges that he signed documents that gave away his rights to his life story in 2007 without any compensation.

If Oher had been adopted by the Tuohys, he would have been a legal member of their family, and he would have retained the power to handle his own financial affairs. The conservatorship gave that power to the Tuohys, despite the fact that Oher was a legal adult at the time and had no disabilities.

Representatives for Oher and the Tuohy family did not immediately respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment.

“We’re devastated,” Sean Tuohy told the Daily Memphian this week after news broke about Oher’s petition. “It’s upsetting to think we would make money off any of our children. But we’re going to love Michael at 37 just like we loved him at 16.”

Oher was selected in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens, and he made over $34 million in his eight-year professional football career.

Oher has stated on several occasions since the release of “The Blind Side” that he appreciates the film’s success but disapproves of how he was portrayed. He said being portrayed as if he couldn’t read or write hurt his NFL career.

The Associated Press contributed.

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