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Dementia and Competency to Seek Divorce

If an older adult in Florida suffers from dementia, will a court consider him competent to file for divorce? That’s the question that a Palm Beach County circuit judge recently faced when 87-year-old Martin Zelman filed for divorce. Ultimately, Circuit Judge Charles Burton decided that Zelman “isn’t competent enough to seek a divorce” from his wife of fifteen years, according to a recent article in the Palm Beach Post.

$10 Million Divorce Dispute Ends

When Judge Burton decided that Martin Zelman wasn’t competent to get a divorce in Florida, he put an end to a $10 million dispute between Zelman’s wife, Lois, 80, and her stepchildren. Some onlookers believe Martin’s divorce filing was a tactic used by his children to prevent their stepmother, Lois, from obtaining millions of dollars.

Under the terms of the Zelmans’ prenuptial agreement, if Martin dies and he’s still married to Lois, she’ll get around $7 million. In addition, she’d also receive “an additional $5 million trust and use property, including apartments in Palm Beach and New York City.” Lois could leave the $7 million to her own children from a previous marriage, but the trust would have to go to Martin’s children upon Lois’s death. All in all, Lois would end up with about $10 million in the event of Martin’s death. If Martin and Lois were to divorce, however, Lois would lose all of that $10 million.

Martin’s children filed a petition in probate court last year “claiming Lois was a threat to their father’s well-being.” Diana Lewis, then-Palm Beach County Circuit Judge, appointed two of Martin’s children as his guardians, and she “ordered Lois out of the oceanfront condominium the couple shared.” However, Martin “retained the ability to sue and be sued.” It was after Lewis’s decision that Martin’s petition for divorce was filed. In response, Lois argued that her husband wasn’t competent to seek a divorce given his dementia.

No Credible Evidence of an Irretrievably Broken Marriage

When Judge Burton heard the case, he paid careful attention to Martin’s demeanor in order to assess his competence. Burton observed a man who “clearly . . . had no idea what he was doing.” In court, Zelman testified that the year was 2017, and he told the court that he had married Lois in 2012. He also testified that he and Lois together had three adult children. Given Martin’s inability to recall basic information about his personal life, “Burton ruled that he didn’t pass the most basic test to get a divorce.”

Indeed, Burton emphasized that “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.” To be sure, Burton wrote, “it was clear to the court that Mr. Zelman had no real appreciation of the proceedings and was not a competent witness.”

Even though Martin isn’t able to seek a divorce, there’s still a possibility that Lois won’t be entitled to the money under the terms of the prenuptial agreement. The appeals court will need to decide whether to uphold Lewis’s initial ruling concerning the separation of the Zelmans.

The attorney for Martin’s children indicated that, if the appeals court upholds Lewis’s decision, he’ll “argue that Lois isn’t entitled to the $10 million because she and her husband were separated for more than 30 days.” Based on the terms of the premarital agreement, such a separation would invalidate Lois’s access to Martin’s assets. If it comes to this, Lois’s attorney plans to argue that the terms of the prenup are nonetheless valid because the couple’s separation wasn’t voluntary (it was ordered by Lewis).

Contact a Divorce Attorney in Fort Lauderdale, FL

This case is a complicated one, but it makes clear that dementia can affect the ability for Florida residents to seek a divorce. If you have questions about filing for divorce or have concerns about the terms of a prenuptial agreement, you should discuss your case with an experienced Fort Lauderdale divorce lawyer. Contact the Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood Law Offices of Steven A. Mason, P.A. for legal advice at 954-963-5900 or leave a message online.

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