Peter Falk | Columbo’s Estate Dispute
“Just one more thing…”
Do you remember that famous catchphrase from Lieutenant Columbo, played brilliantly by actor Peter Falk? He was one of the most important TV and movie stars of his day, and he inspired a generation of detective shows.
Falk lost an eye at the age of three because of a malignant tumor, and because of that disability, he was rejected from the armed services. He nevertheless joined the US Merchant Marines at the end of World War II and served as a cook and mess boy. He later applied for a job with the CIA but was rejected because he had joined a union while serving in the Merchant Marines. It wasn’t until he was 30 years old that he ultimately decided to pursue a career in acting.
Most people do not know or remember that Falk’s mother, Madeline Falk, was a victim of elder financial abuse, crimes which were carried out by her caregiver and that Falk worked to prosecute that wrongdoer. Elder Financial Abuse was a matter about which Falk was passionate. In 2003, using his celebrity status, Falk made a public service video in which he urged banks and other front-line professionals to lead the defense against financial exploitation of the elderly. You can find that YouTube video online.
Ironically, Falk made that video at the age of 76, and a few short years later he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. His life, and then his estate, quickly became embroiled in its own controversy – not elder financial abuse, but another common and related problem we see every day in our law practice: a stepmother/stepchild dispute.
Falk was married twice, and he and his first wife adopted two children, Jackie and Catherine. Interestingly enough, Catherine followed her father’s fictional career and went on to become a private investigator. When Catherine was just 5, Falk divorced his first wife and remarried a year later to his second wife, Shera, who was 22 years his junior.
As often happens in blended families, Catherine did not get along with her step-mother, and eventually, Peter Falk and his daughter Catherine also became estranged. Indeed, by 2008, at which point he was incapacitated with the onset of Alzheimer’s, Shera neglected to inform either of her step-children of Peter Falk’s progressively worse medical condition. By the time Catherine found out, Shera had refused her stepdaughter’s repeated requests even to visit him.
Things went from bad to worse between stepmother and stepdaughter, and Catherine fought for 7 months in court to be put in charge of her father in a conservatorship. The Court ultimately appointed Shera, but the issue was still not settled. Visitation rights for Catherine were limited, and Catherine’s sister, Jackie, was unable to visit at all.
Shera eventually inherited most of Peter Falk’s estate, valued at approximately $5 million. Even though Falk wanted to take care of his daughter Catherine in his will with a six-figure inheritance, he nevertheless created a clause that stated that she would lose her entire inheritance if she were to contest his instructions. At the end, when Falk’s father died in 2011 at the age of 83, Catherine got very little satisfaction and was even reportedly forced to spend a significant amount of her future inheritance on legal fees. So, unfortunately, the Peter Falk case turned out to be another sad and unfortunate stepmother dispute with no real winners.
Oh – just one more thing…
After the bitter dispute with her stepmother ended, Catherine Falk started the Catherine Falk Organization, whose purpose is to advance and advocate wards rights visitation legislation nationwide. She and her former probate attorney drafted the Peter Falk Bill in 2011, which was written to preserve, protect and respect the right of adult children to visit an ailing or incapacitated parent who is either under a power of attorney or legal guardianship.
In 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo officially signed Peter Falk’s Law in New York, one of more than 10 states to enact the legislation. Thanks to that effort, in those states children from previous marriages, as well as estranged family members, will no longer be denied the right to visit an incapacitated parent and/or loved one by a current spouse who is a guardian/conservator with whom they may not get along.
Perhaps Peter Falk’s ultimate legacy will be the important law named after him, which may go well beyond his days playing an unassuming police detective on TV.