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Hearst family resolves conservatorship court battle

Judges orders conservatorship over Peter Falk

My prior posts about the Peter Falk conservatorship case describe how his wife, Shera, and adopted daughter, Catherine, were fighting over the right to make his decisions due to his Alzheimer's disease and dementia.Peter Falk

The judge previously stated that he was going to side with Shera, but he wanted a hearing about Catherine's relationship with her father, to see if Shera should be ordered to allow visitations.  Shera (who is not Catherine's mother) said that Catherine didn't visit before, when Peter was fully competent, so why should she be permitted to visit now?

Last week, Catherine testified at length about her relationship with her famous father, Emmy-winning star of Colombo.  He used to send her hundreds of postcards, and they had recently rekindled their relationship.  Catherine testified that when she tried to visit her father, Shera wouldn't allow it and even slammed the door in her face.  Catherine said she just wanted to be next to her father.

Shera fought back, saying that Catherine was estranged from her father and only filed the case because she's interested in money.  Her attorneys presented Peter's personal diary in court yesterday and argued it proved he was estranged from his daughter since a lawsuit she filed against him seeking payment of her college tuition.

Shera Falk's attorney argued that no conservatorship was needed and Shera should be free to restrict Catherine from visiting if she wanted to, using the power of attorney Peter Falk granted her while still competent.

The judge heard the testimony and ruled that Falk needed a conservator.  While he did appoint Shera as the conservator, he didn't rule completely in her favor.  Rather, he felt court supervision through a conservatorship was needed to allow Catherine the right to visit her father.  While the case was very contentious, the two sides ultimately agreed to allow 30 minutes visits, every other month, without Shera present. 

Sadly, a doctor who evaluated Peter Falk testified yesterday that his advanced dementia and apparent Alzheimer's disease were so severe that Peter would not even remember the visits.

Guardianship and conservatorship battles between children and spouses from different marriages are far more common than most people realize.  Always emotional and difficult, judges usually resolve these disputes in favor of the person who has power of attorney (in this case Shera).  But even then, issues of visitation are common and can only be resolved in court if families don't agree.

This case presents yet another reason why it is so important for every adult to see an estate planning attorney and have a proper power of attorney prepared.  Cases like these can be even messier when families battle over who is suitable to care for someone.  At least in this case, because of the power of attorney, the fight was limited to visitation only. 

Posted by:  Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs:  Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law.  You can email him at awmayoras @

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