Warning: this is an uncomfortable topic.
The other night, I watched Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy on HBO Max, and like most people, I immediately realized the circus around her was just sad. The story seemed to go from all too relatable to almost all too intrusive at times
As legendary singer Tony Bennett said, Amy Winehouse was a “true Jazz musician.” As I watch her effortlessly take on her recording sessions over live instruments, her voice embodies the meaning of an ‘old soul.’ Early in the movie, her already-mature, melancholy voice was being compared to legendary Jazz names like Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, and Gladys Knight — so it was pretty unusual that someone her age could make music that seem to carry so many years of pain and despondence.
By the time Amy came to the scene in the early 2000s, R&B and Pop music was about to begin its multi-decade run. Today, the world is still a cruel and heartless place; Our streets are overrun by Taylor Swift fans.
But, despite her transcending voice, we all knew Amy lived in the moment. Maybe too much in the moment.
I originally only wanted to talk about one aspect of her story. I was surprised to read that someone of her status had no kind of contingency plan in place. You would think the people around her knew what she and her music meant to the world. Beyond that, what the end result was to their lifestyle. I suppose legal documents weren’t on the top of the priority list.
I felt that writing on this would be wrong without talking about how mental illnesses and an island level of total control don’t mix.
Parents with kids in their early 20s know better than anyone — cases of depression and anxiety are more prevalent than ever. So what I’m about to talk about is crucial for someone you may know who is dealing with a severe mental illness and/or simply doesn’t possess the ability to control their finances by themselves.
As you’re reading, you’ll see that regardless of age, or in Amy’s case, status, not all adults are equipped to handle their own affairs at times.
It’s hard to believe someone so troubled could make music so powerful. Yet, it makes sense, given the best art nearly always comes from a deep emotional state. Take this original painting by Claude Monet.
“Tuberculosis, sometimes called “the romantic disease,” is present in much of art and literature of the 19th centruy. The feverishness is cause was said to heighten artistic abilities, and my women with rosy cheeks depicted in this ear are thought to have had TB. Claude Monet’s 1879 portraight of his wife, Camille, on her death bed shows the dark reality of this illness, which took many lives. The blurred, dreamy portrait evokes the haze grief the artist was in.” – Chandra Noyes, Art&Object.com
If you truly dive into Amy’s lyrics, all signs point to what we already knew.
I’m no mental health expert, but as I understand, oftentimes, there are early signs that a much bigger problem lurks ahead. The American Psychiatric Association shares about 12 warning signs of a mental illness here.
Incapacity falls in this realm, too. I’ll talk about this more another day, but my grandma was 72 by the time her dementia seemed like it was indistinguishable from her personality. She started forgetting where she placed simple things like the remote or her coffee before it escalated to more serious stuff like cash and, eventually, our names.
I encourage all bystanders to talk to their lawyers about these three documents.
A durable Power of Attorney allows you to choose who you want to make financial and personal decisions on your behalf if you are not able to do so. And they’re specially designed to bounce into action if that person is incapacitated and can’t/shouldn’t respond for themselves.
For someone like Amy, who was known to struggle with addiction and mental health issues, having someone in this role could have helped protect her interests as a fiduciary and ensured that her affairs were adequately managed.
We never even want to think about it, but when it comes to hospitalizations, you’ll also want to have power of attorney for healthcare, sometimes called a healthcare proxy. This power can include a wide range of decisions about your medical care, including the authority to consent to or refuse medical treatment, making decisions about life-sustaining treatments, and choosing healthcare providers. Along these same lines, also consider HIPAA release forms. They allow the doctor to share important information with the responsible party.
When It’s Bad Enough
If it gets bad enough, such as showing clear harm to themselves or other people, it could be time to call in backup.
A conservatorship is what happens when that person’s actions have forced life’s hands so much that the court steps in. The court appoints a responsible person, a conservator or guardian, who may or may not be a family member, to manage their personal and/or financial affairs.
Just like guardianship for a child, the conservatorship can be split between the financials and the person. And speaking of celebrity cases, remember when Britney Spears was sweeping the internet? Britney Spears was in conservatorship from 2008 to 2021.
Whether her conservatorship went on for too long is not really for me to say, however, the takeaway is that it can last for as long/short as it truly needs until that person can confidently make major decisions without supervision.
As far as Amy was concerned, a conservatorship could have helped her manage her finances and make difficult decisions about her career and personal life. Especially relevantly given her struggles with addiction, which can often lead to impulsive and financially damaging behavior.
It probably goes without saying that regardless of age, race, wealth, or status, having some resemblance to an estate plan is very important. Yet why do so many of us put it on the back burner?
Instead of thinking of it as planning our “estate” we may never feel we have, we should think of it as legacy planning. The last thing any of us want is our last memories tainted by arguments that only arose because of a lack of a little forethought.
This missing critical component led to legal battles between her family and her ex-husband over the distribution of her assets. As a result, she could have avoided much of the posthumous drama and ensured that her legacy was preserved and remembered as she would have wanted.
Stuck in the Middle
All this is to say, financial dependence doesn’t have an age preference. Nor does it have to only come from a disability.
Share this with someone you may know who is caring for someone with severe depression or struggling with mental issues. And/or a parent showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease/dementia who needs someone to ensure they aren’t being taken advantage of or harming themselves.
This is particularly important to the folks in that ‘sandwich generation’ — those taking care of their aging parents while still raising a family of their own. “On average, 48% of adults are providing some sort of financial support to their grown children, while 27% are their primary support. Additionally, 25% are financially supporting their parents as well,” Jack Kelly from Forbes says.
I’m sure Amy’s talent and legacy will continue to inspire and move people for generations to come. But her story will serve as a lesson about the importance of taking control of one’s legacy and ensuring that their wishes are properly documented and communicated so it doesn’t feel the like their life was lived all for nothing.