Inside Wendy Williams' Fight to Be Freed from Her Guardianship: 'This System Is Broken' (Exclusive)

The former talk show host has been living under a legal guardianship since 2022 — and now her family is shedding light on the situation in this week's PEOPLE

<p>Lars Niki/Getty</p> Wendy Williams in 2019

Lars Niki/Getty

Wendy Williams in 2019

Wendy Williams is working to regain control of her future.

Since May 2022, the former Wendy Williams Show host, 59, has been living under a legal guardianship that oversees both her finances and health. And for the past 10 months, she's been in an unknown facility to address cognitive issues.

Williams' family says her court-appointed legal guardian (whose identity remains private) is the only person who currently has unfettered access to her. They say she can call them, but they cannot call her themselves.

"How did she go from this aunt or sister that we love and is healthy one minute to this person who’s in and out of the hospital?” Williams' sister Wanda Finnie asks in this week's PEOPLE cover story. “How is that system better than the system the family could put in place? I don't know. I do know that this system is broken. I hope that at some point, Wendy becomes strong enough where she can speak on her own behalf."

Related: Wendy Williams' Family Break Their Silence on Her 'Shocking and Heartbreaking' Struggles Over the Past 3 Years (Exclusive)

PEOPLE's Wendy Williams cover story
PEOPLE's Wendy Williams cover story

Williams — who has struggled with alcoholism and health issues including Graves’ disease (an autoimmune disorder that can cause bulging eyes), and lymphedema (a condition that causes swelling in her feet) — was appointed her legal guardian months after Wells Fargo froze her accounts in 2022. The decision to freeze the accounts was made after Williams' financial adviser at the time alleged that she was of “unsound mind,” according to Williams’ court filings.

In January 2022, Wells Fargo successfully petitioned a New York court to have Williams placed under a temporary financial guardianship, reportedly because she was at risk of financial exploitation due to cognitive issues.

Related: Where Is Wendy Williams? Shocking Doc Reveals Star's Struggles with Money Woes, Health Issues and Alcohol

Williams’ 23-year-old son Kevin Hunter Jr., whom she shares with ex-husband Kevin Hunter, came under scrutiny for his spending, but he strongly denies that he exploited her in the upcoming Lifetime documentary Where Is Wendy Williams? "I’ve never taken [money] without her consent," he says. (Kevin Jr. declined to comment for this story; Wanda says he is still financially supported by his mother.)

When the guardian was appointed to Williams in May 2022, her family says they were kept in the dark as to why the court made the decision. The court papers have also been sealed.

“All I know is that Wendy and her team walked into the courtroom one way, and they walked out, and the family is completely excluded,” says Wanda, 65.

<p>Lifetime</p> Wendy Williams with her niece Alex in the Lifetime documentary Where Is Wendy Williams?


Wendy Williams with her niece Alex in the Lifetime documentary Where Is Wendy Williams?

A month after the guardian was appointed, Williams was caught on camera passed out at a Louis Vuitton store, drunk. She entered a wellness facility for two months starting in September 2022, but the next March, after she took a trip to L.A., her manager and jeweler Will Selby says in the documentary that she was “disheveled” and adamant about drinking.

"I think the film is a great illustration of what, in this one particular case, life looked like for someone that was under a guardianship," says Where Is Wendy Williams? executive producer Mark Ford. "Just because you're under a guardianship doesn't mean that you're getting 24/7 care, and I think just leaving someone in their apartment isn't care. When we got to know Wendy's family, it was clear to us this was a nice family, and the question remained in our minds: Why is the family not able to be a part of Wendy's life? Why is the family not able to serve as her guardian? I still don't fully have those answers."

Related: Wendy Williams Is in a Facility to Treat Cognitive Issues, Doing 'Really Great,' Says Family (Exclusive)

While Ford says the documentary crew attempted to get the guardian to speak to them, they were "hung up on every single time" they reached out.

"So, we weren't able to really ask the questions that we would've loved to have asked, like, 'What's going on here on a daily basis? And why is there no food in Wendy's apartment, for example?' Simple things that we were able to see just because we were there so often," Ford says.

Neither Williams' guardian nor Wells Fargo have responded to PEOPLE's request for comment.

<p>BACKGRID</p> Wendy Williams being pushed in a wheelchair in September 2021


Wendy Williams being pushed in a wheelchair in September 2021

Producers stopped filming the documentary in April 2023 after they found Williams in her apartment with her eyes rolled back into her head and worked with Selby to urge the guardian to get Williams help. Ford says, “The guardian did come around and was responsive to our pleas ... to get her into a safer place.”

Right now, the power over when Williams can leave the facility, if at all, remains in her guardian’s hands.

After high-profile cases like Britney Spears’, the legal guardian and conservator systems in the U.S. are being reexamined. A New York State Assembly bill was proposed in 2022 to expedite the hearing process when an appeal is filed in a guardianship. (Williams’ family is not currently contesting her case.)

Related: Sherri Shepherd Says She's 'Truly Concerned' for Wendy Williams: 'She's Going Through a Lot'

Ford says filmmakers proceeded with the documentary to shed light on Williams’ situation: “We asked ourselves almost every day, ‘Is this helping Wendy or is this hurting her?’ And in the end we felt like it was helping her. This is about the guardianship system and how it can be improved.”

For more on Wendy Williams, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday, or subscribe here.

Investigative journalist Diane Dimond — who released a book about the guardianship system, We’re Here to Help: When Guardianship Goes Wrong, in September — says an estimated 2 million people are living under the court's control at present.

"A guardian can be a family member, it could be your best friend, it could be a perfectly trustworthy commoner, so to speak," Dimond says. "More and more, I have discovered, after investigating this for eight or nine years now, judges are overlooking family members, they're overlooking friends, and they're going immediately to these professional, for-profit appointees, and they're complete strangers to these wards of the court. So within that, the ward of the court loses all their civil rights. They have no more rights to decide anything about their personal life or their financial life."

<p>T.JACKSON / BACKGRID</p> Wendy Williams in March 2023


Wendy Williams in March 2023

Since guardianship proceedings happen in a court of equity and not in criminal or civil court, Dimond says "there's no due process."

"There's no trial, there's no right to present opposing witnesses," she says. "Usually, the judge will just take the petition, rubber stamp it, appoint the guardian or conservator and wash his or her hands of the case."

Under the guardianship, "you can no longer decide where you live, you can't spend your money, you can't vote, you can't marry, you can't decide what doctors you're going to see or what friends can come," says Dimond. "You have no rights. Somebody on death row has more rights than a person put under a guardianship. I'm not exaggerating because at least they can hire their own attorney, and they can make phone calls."

Related: Wendy Williams Takes Off Wig, Tears Up During Emotional Reunion with Blac Chyna in New Lifetime Doc (Exclusive)

Once a person is placed under a guardianship, Dimond says it can be hard to get out of.

"I frankly worry that Wendy will never get out of guardianship because when a judge establishes a guardianship, it is most often for life," she says. "If we were a society that really cared about protecting at-risk people, vulnerable people, then tell me why there's so many people sleeping out on the streets in New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago? We only seem to care about putting people who've got some money in guardianships, and Wendy Williams has got money."

Still, Williams' family remains hopeful for the day they can reunite. "[Wendy's] desire, as I understand it, is to be in Florida with her family," Wanda says.

Wendy Williams with her son Kevin Jr. in Florida in 2021
Wendy Williams with her son Kevin Jr. in Florida in 2021

It’s hinted at in the documentary that Williams wants to get out of her current situation, as Wanda is shown instructing her over the phone to write down every time her calls go unanswered, presumably to her guardian.

During recent phone conversations with Williams, Wanda's daughter Alex, 33, says her aunt has been sounding "really great."

"I have not heard my aunt sound this good in years," she says. "To hear my aunt now in terms of just how clear she is, just how focused she is on the importance of family and the reality in terms of facing and understanding where she's at physically and mentally and emotionally, it is like a 180. I'm always just reminding her when I'm on the phone with her that she has a world of people here that love you, are supporting you and want to see you back."

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Where Is Wendy Williams? premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. and concludes at the same time the next day on Lifetime.

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