Peter Falk’s Law designed to protect Alzheimer’s and dementia patients

By Anthony J. Enea

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Editor’s Note: A bill similar to New York’s recently enacted Falk’s Law was introduced in the Connecticut General Assembly early this year. An amended version was unanimously approved by state lawmakers’ joint Aging Committee in March but the legislation has not yet come to a vote of the full assembly.

For 10 years, Peter Falk brilliantly portrayed Lieutenant Columbo, an LAPD detective of Italian descent, in the hit television series “Columbo.” While wearing his trademark wrinkled raincoat, chronically absent-minded and perpetually disheveled, Columbo would quickly and intellectually disarm a suspected murderer. Through skilled and insightful questioning and with a keen eye for detail, he was able to solve the most complex homicides.

However, putting Hollywood fantasies aside, Falk, a native New Yorker and graduate of Ossining High School, sadly is said to have spent his last days suffering from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease while allegedly isolated from his family and friends by his second wife, his court-appointed conservator under California law. As Falk’s conservator, she allegedly prevented his daughter and other family members from visiting him, failed to notify them of major changes in his condition and even allegedly failed to notify them of his demise in 2011 and his funeral arrangements.

Because of her heartbreaking experience, his daughter, Catherine Falk, has fought to have legislation passed nationwide, known as Peter Falk’s Law, that provides specific guidelines that guardians and conservators for an incapacitated person must comply with relevant to visitation rights and notice of end of life.

In New York, the bill was signed into law on July 21 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Thus, New York has become one of the many states that have adopted Peter Falk’s Law.

As a result, the Mental Hygiene Law of New York was amended with three new paragraphs relevant to guardianship duties. They provide as follows:

  • The order of appointment shall identify the person entitled to receive notice of the incapacitated person’s death, the intended disposition of the remains of the decedent, funeral arrangements and final resting place when that information is known or can be reasonably ascertained by the guardian.
  • The order of appointment may identify the person or persons entitled to notice of the incapacitated person’s transfer to a medical facility.
  • The order of appointment may identify the person entitled to visit the incapacitated person, if they so choose. However, the identification of such persons in the order shall in no way limit the person entitled to visit the incapacitated person.

Clearly, the intent of Peter Falk’s Law is to ensure that children from a previous marriage, as well as other family members, are not denied the right to visit their incapacitated parent or loved one by a current spouse who is a guardian/conservator with whom they may have a poor relationship. The law in essence requires that the court address the issue of visitation, notice of transfer to a medical facility and death in its initial order appointing a guardian for the incapacitated person. Ultimately, the goal is to prevent a guardian from improperly isolating his or her ward and limiting visitation.

Anthony J. Enea is the managing member of Enea, Scanlan & Sirignano LLP with offices in White Plains and Somers. He is a past chairman of the New York State Bar Association’s elder law section. He can be reached at 914-948-1500 or A.Enea@esslawfirm.com.

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