On Monday, July 6, a Palm Beach, Florida circuit court judge ruled that a man suffering from dementia is not competent enough to seek a divorce.
Long Island real estate mogul, Martin Zelman, 87, took the stand in mid-June to answer questions about his 15-year marriage to his current wife, Lois Zelman, 80. According to court transcripts, Zelman was unable to accurately answer basic inquiries – including what year it is presently as well as the year in which he was married – prompting the court to find that Martin lacks the necessary competence to seek divorce. “Mr. Zelman was answering questions similar to how a young child or a parrot would answer without any real understanding of the nature of the proceedings. It was clear to the court that Mr. Zelman had no real appreciation of the proceedings and was not a competent witness,” wrote Judge Charles Burton, who presided over the case.
In handing down his decision, Judge Burton noted
Speaking of his client’s recent court victory, Lois’s attorney, Jeffrey Fisher, said he hoped this would put an end to the already year-long court battle.
Attorney Joel Weissman, who represented Martin in the case, said he and his client were not giving up the fight, and may appeal Burton’s decision to the 4th District Court of Appeals to reinstate the previous probate court decision.
Last year, Zelman’s children from a previous marriage filed a petition in probate court in which they claimed Lois was a threat to their father’s well-being. At that time, Palm Beach circuit court judge, Diana Lewis – who later lost re-election, and never saw Martin in court – found in favor of Martin, appointing his two adult children as guardians and forcing Lois to move out of the couple’s Palm Beach condominium.
Although the probate court ruling put most of Martin’s decision-making power into the hands of his children, Judge Lewis still left him with the right to sue and be sued by others. On the same day as the probate court ruling, Martin filed a petition to divorce his wife.
If successful, the petition would have prevented Lois from receiving an estimated $10 million benefit upon her husband’s death. Under the couple’s prenuptial agreement, in the event of Martin’s death, Lois would receive approximately $7 million, and she would also receive income from a $5 million trust and use of her husband’s properties during her lifetime, including apartments in Palm Beach and New York City. Upon her death, the trust would revert back to Martin’s beneficiaries.
Fisher argued the divorce was the brainchild of Martin’s children, who Fisher contends did not want to see Lois benefit from their father’s estate.
According to its terms, if Martin divorced his wife, or if the couple separated for more than 30 days, the prenuptial agreement would no longer be valid.
On appeal, Weissman plans to argue the agreement is no longer valid since the couple had already been apart for more than a year. Fisher plans to counter by saying that since the separation was ordered by
Lois Zelman, who claims to still love her husband despite the drastic change in their relationship brought about by his dementia, hopes to resume their life together but, according to Fisher, she acknowledges the difficulty of doing so given the time they spent apart.