Published on:

When is a Divorce Not a Divorce? The Zelman Case Raises Many Complicated Issues

There is never a good time to divorce, when everything will be simple, but some issues, such as those related to division of property, seem even more complicated when the parties are elderly.  Perhaps Florida’s most notable case is that of Burt and Lovey Handelsman, who started divorce proceedings after 67 years of marriage and after amassing a fortune through ownership of commercial real estate properties throughout South Florida. Although it does not involve the same huge sums of money as the Handelsman case, Zelman v. Zelman might be an even messier case, because one of the parties is suffering from dementia.

Details of the Zelman Case

In 2014, Martin Zelman was in his 80s and suffering from dementia and short-term memory loss.  His son Robert Zelman petitioned the court to appoint him or one of his sisters (Martin’s daughters) as their father’s guardian. The petition also mentioned Lois Zelman, Martin’s wife to whom he had been married since 1993, among Martin’s “next of kin,” but it did not recommend her as a guardian and implied that she was an unsuitable choice to act as such. The court appointed Robert as Martin’s temporary guardian, in charge of his health and financial affairs.  As soon as the court appointed Robert as Martin’s guardian, Robert, acting on Martin’s behalf, filed a motion with the court to have Lois removed from the marital home, claiming that she had been abusing and neglecting Martin in his vulnerable state of health. In response, Lois provided the court with evidence that she and Martin were happily married and that she had remained true to her vow to care for him in sickness and in health. The court ruled that Lois must leave the couple’s apartment, and she complied, moving into another apartment in the same building.

Lois argued that Martin was not sufficiently incapacitated as to require a guardian; she proposed instead that the court appoint a power of attorney and health surrogate for him and that he receive in-home health assistance around the clock. Many other petitions followed, filed by Lois and by Robert, disagreeing over details of the extent of Martin’s incapacity and over whom, if anyone, the court should appoint as his guardian. An attorney representing Lois alleged that Martin’s children were trying to force Martin to divorce Lois. The court ruled that, even if the court dissolved the marriage, such a dissolution would not count as a divorce, and that Lois would be entitled to the same assets from Martin’s estate, upon his death, as if they had still been married.

The Appeals Court’s Decision

The appeals court eventually ruled that the previous decisions of the lower courts were so convoluted that the only way to resolve the matter was to re-try the case from the beginning. For example, the court ruled that Martin was not competent to marry but was competent to file a lawsuit, which does not make sense. The issue of whether Lois was actually a “party” in any of the lawsuits or merely an “interested person” was also a hopelessly confusing issue.

Contact Alan Burton About Late-in-Life Divorce Cases

Cases like Zelman v. Zelman, when one of the parties is in poor health because of old age, make divorce even more complicated. Contact Alan R. Burton in Boca Raton, Florida for a consultation relating to your elderly relative’s legal decisions.