Tomorrow, a judge in California will consider a conservator petition from the parents of Amanda Bynes, the 27-year-old actress who began as a child star on Nickelodeon, but has spent the last year in a public meltdown.
Her parents are asking for the right to manage their daughter’s finances, make her health care decisions, and even choose where she lives. These are powers a lot of parents with troubled adult kids would like to have, though relatively few pursue conservatorships; most are issued for elderly adults with dementia.
Signs of Bynes' unraveling began about a year ago, with eccentric tweets from the actress, followed by run-ins with the law. Court documents show that Bynes ran through more than $1 million of her fortune in a matter of months. But Probate Attorney Mina Sirkin says it is difficult for a parent to exert legal control over a troubled adult child. Typically, a significant event, often an accident, will compel parents to act and give them the legal proof to be granted a conservatorship.
For Bynes, that event occurred last month when she reportedly set herself on fire in front of a neighbor’s house, landing her in a mental facility on a temporary psychiatric hold. That expires tomorrow, the same day her parents will ask the judge for a probate conservatorship of person and estate. They must prove Bynes can’t provide for her own personal needs and can’t manage her money. If conservatorship is granted, they would assume those responsibilities.
"The moment that you get the ability to manage her financial resources, you’re in effect controlling a lot of other things that go with that," Sirkin says.
Mother Randye Kaye has been there, and wrote a book chronicling her struggle to parent an adult child with mental illness, “Ben Behind His Voices.”
Kaye says she watched her son’s erratic behavior for years with no legal right to manage his money or interact with his doctors. Finally she went to court to become his conservator.
Many mental illness symptoms surface in a person’s early 20s, just as they are leaving the nest and establishing independence, which Kaye says complicates things. "When the world is telling them that they are an adult, and you know they need some help, it is very hard, because they may have periods of lucidity, where , ‘see I’m fine-I’m fine-I’m fine.’
"And then psychosis takes hold and you worry about impulsive acts," Kaye says. "So it is a difficult balance to get the legal right to step in when you need to."
Kaye’s son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and has rebuilt his life with her help and medication. But she knows what would have happened if she didn’t intervene. "Financially, any money he had would be gone, whether it was 20 cents or $20 million. He would just spend it. It’s very immediate. He would not have the judgment to understand how to spend that money or listen to anybody’s advice," she says.
At Daniel’s Place in Santa Monica, mentally ill young adults who are on their own can get help with anything from psychiatric treatment to applying for disability benefits. The center also holds money management classes to help young people become independent, and pay off the debts they ran up before treatment.
"We’ve had stories of youth buying plane tickets, we’ve had youth charge outrageous things to parent’s credit cards, really having their own reasons for doing it behind it. But those reasons were not based in a lot of rational thinking," said Emily James, a longtime manager at Daniel's Place who also works at the group's parent organization, Step Up On Second in Los Angeles.
The center also supports parents who have conservatorships, but are still butting heads with their adult children.
"Money is really looked at as a source of control by the youth a lot of times, so we really have to help educate the youth about responsible budgeting and spending, and also empowering them to be able to do so," James says. She adds that mentally ill young adults face the same basic financial hang-up as everyone else: distinguishing wants over needs. Their illness just magnifies that struggle.