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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - For more than a year, Lois Zelman insisted that even though dementia dramatically changed her relationship with her husband of 15 years, she still loved him and didn’t want a divorce.
On Monday, a Palm Beach County circuit judge ruled that she doesn’t have to get one.
In a decision that could be the beginning of the end to a $10 million dispute between the 80-year-old Palm Beach woman and her stepchildren, Circuit Judge Charles Burton ruled that 87-year-old Martin Zelman isn’t competent enough to seek a divorce.
Roughly two weeks after watching Zelman testify that it was 2017, that he had married Lois in 2012 and they had three adult children and various grandchildren, Burton ruled that he didn’t pass the most basic test to get a divorce.
“This court had the opportunity to watch the witness and assess his demeanor,” Burton wrote. “This was both painful and sad to watch. The court finds that there is no credible or competent evidence for the court to find that the parties’ marriage is irretrievably broken.”
The decision means that the case is likely headed back to probate court where another judge will decide how the wildly successful Long Island real estate investor will spend his remaining years.
“I think it’s the right ruling. It’s a well-reasoned ruling,” said attorney Jeffrey Fisher, who represented Lois Zelman in the legally complex case. “I hope this case goes away now.”
But, attorney Joel Weissman, who represents Martin Zelman, said the legal fight isn’t over.
He said he may appeal Burton’s ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal. Further, he said, he is hopeful that the appeals court will soon uphold a previous probate court decision which could keep Lois from getting the estimated $10 million she was promised under the couple’s prenuptial agreement.
“It’s a sad day for Martin Zelman who truly desired to have his marriage to Lois dissolved,” Weissman said.
Burton’s decision supports Fisher’s assertions that the divorce was engineered by his adult children, who wanted to cut Lois off from their father’s millions.
Under the prenuptial agreement, if Martin died, Lois would get roughly $7 million, which she could leave to her children from a previous marriage. She would also get income from an additional $5 million trust and use of property, including apartments in Palm Beach and New York City. But, when she dies, that trust would go to Martin’s children.
However, under the prenuptial agreement, the estimated $10 million deal was off if Martin divorced her.
Last year, Zelman’s children filed a petition in probate court, claiming Lois was a threat to their father’s well-being. In response, then-Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Diana Lewis appointed two of his children as his guardians and ordered Lois out of the oceanfront condominium the couple shared.
But, while Lewis put Zelman’s children in charge of most of his life, she allowed him to retain the ability to sue and be sued. A day after Lewis’ decision was made, the divorce petition was filed.
Burton noted that Lewis, who was defeated in August in her bid for re-election, apparently made her decisions without ever seeing Martin in court. After watching Martin testify, he said it was clear he had no idea what he was doing.
“In the court’s opinion, 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,” he wrote. “It was clear to the court that Mr. Zelman had no real appreciation of the proceedings and was not a competent witness.”
If the appeals court throws out Lewis’ rulings, Weissman said the dispute will likely end. However, if the appeals court upholds her decisions, he will argue that Lois isn’t entitled to the $10 million because she and her husband were separated for more than 30 days. Under the prenuptial agreement, a separation would also invalidate the accord.
Fisher disagreed. Since the separation was ordered by Lewis, it wasn’t voluntary. Therefore, the prenuptial agreement would stand, he said.
While the case is tragic, Fisher said it should also serve as a cautionary tale. It shows how a prenuptial agreement can be upended by adult children, he said.
As for Lois and Martin, their future is unclear, he said.
While Lois would like to resume her life with her husband, it may not be possible, Fisher said. After being apart for more than a year, he may not recognize her anymore.