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Feud Spirals, With Mother at Center

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everyone agrees it was quite a scene the day that the fight over the little old lady spilled out of the Montrose bank lobby and turned into a car chase across Los Angeles.

Over in the bank’s customer waiting area was Ken Kaplan. Back by the teller windows was his half-brother, Dan Fleischman. In the middle was their mother, 80-year-old millionaire Joan Fleischman.

Kaplan was there with a nurse and a pair of court-appointed conservators to take their mother to a hospital to evaluate her condition. Fleischman was there to withdraw some cash so he could put their mother into hiding.

When Fleischman spied Kaplan, he scooped up the white-haired woman and rushed from the bank with her in his arms. Kaplan and the conservators raced after them as a bank teller grabbed Joan Fleischman’s walker and followed behind.

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Said Fleischman: “I panicked. I was surrounded. I drove away and they followed me. I thought I lost them in Chinatown, but they followed me all the way to the Westside.”

Recalled Kaplan: “He just picked her up and walked out with her. We thought, ‘Oh my God, what are we supposed to do?’ and followed them. We eventually lost him--he had a Camaro with a V-8 and we had a minivan and couldn’t keep up.”

The unusual nature of the Aug. 11 incident is one of the few things that the two sides can agree on in the growing dispute over Joan Fleischman and her estimated $4.5-million estate.

They do agree on one other thing: What started as a family feud has mushroomed into a nasty legal fight involving 10 sets of attorneys and lawsuits filed in both federal and Superior courts.

“It’s bizarre and sick,” said Kaplan, a 53-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz., computer engineer.

“It’s hideous,” said Fleischman, 41, a lawyer who owns and operates a Los Angeles cleaning supply company.

These days Joan Fleischman lies in a room at a Glendale convalescent home where she is guarded by conservators, watched over by rival groups of nurses and examined by different sets of doctors.

There is disagreement over her medical condition--and whether she was of sound mind when she signed the papers that prompted the ugly tug-of-war that she’s caught up in.

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Joan Fleischman was sharing her La Canada Flintridge home with Dan Fleischman when, in 1994, she signed the first two documents.

One was a “durable power of attorney for health care” that designated Fleischman with full authority over her future medical treatment. The other was a last will and testament that bequeathed virtually all of her property to Fleischman. (The one exception: a Hermosa Beach rental unit she acquired during an earlier marriage to Kaplan’s father was left to Kaplan.)

A Struggle Over Control

In 1997, Joan Fleischman signed over an additional power of attorney to Fleischman, placing him in immediate control of her property.

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Before 1994, Joan Fleischman had intended to divide her estate equally between Kaplan, Fleischman and a third son, Don Fleischman, also of La Canada Flintridge, according to an earlier will included in court documents.

Kaplan said his mother was suffering from dementia--probably Alzheimer’s disease--when she signed money, property and legal authority over to Fleischman.

“Dan has taken over my mother,” he said by telephone from his Arizona home. “The reality is she was basically owned by Dan for a number of years. Owned and controlled.”

Fleischman denies that. He contends that their mother’s mental state is the result of several small strokes as well as medication recently administered to her at the behest of her court-appointed conservators, who took over her care in response to a petition filed by Kaplan.

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“It’s been alluded to as Alzheimer’s, but it’s not that,” Fleischman said in an interview at his mother’s La Canada Flintridge home. “The psychotropic drugs contributed to strokes she had on Nov. 19. That’s caused her diminished capacity.”

Kaplan and Fleischman said they had a good relationship before the dispute over their mother. Both insist they are motivated only by their desire to see her happy.

But at the root of the dispute is money.

Kaplan said it began simmering earlier this year when he and Fleischman clashed over the need to hire caretakers to assist their mother at home at times when Fleischman was at work. He said the dispute exploded when Fleischman sought to withdraw money from one of their mother’s bank accounts.

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According to Kaplan, that particular $66,000 account was jointly held in his and Joan Fleischman’s names. To prevent his half-brother from withdrawing any cash, Kaplan closed it and transferred the money to a new account.

Fleischman likened Kaplan’s action to theft.

“You have stolen Mom’s savings,” Fleischman complained in a harshly worded letter that he sent by fax, certified mail and registered mail to Kaplan on June 16. “Pay it back now or suffer the consequences.”

Kaplan responded by criticizing the care that their mother was receiving and by questioning Fleischman’s ability to “impartially handle Mom’s financial affairs.” He also complained that Fleischman was refusing to allow their mother to talk to him.

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“I demand access to Mom both by telephone and by personal visits any time I wish,” Kaplan wrote back June 30. “I demand that a person be with Mom when you are not in the home. I demand an independent audit of Mom’s financial situation.”

Kaplan said he initiated the conservatorship action for Joan Fleischman when his brother ignored his demands. Conservatorship--in which a court assumes control over a person found unable to care for himself--was approved Aug. 7. The court-appointed conservators were looking for her at the time of the Aug. 11 bank incident and car chase.

Fleischman said he hid with his mother for about a week after that, staying in hotels and with friends. When they returned to their La Canada Flintridge home, he said, he discovered that its locks had been changed--apparently by the conservators. The conservators did not return a reporter’s phone calls seeking comment.

Joan Fleischman remained at home until Sept. 13, when she became ill and paramedics sent her to a local hospital. After that, according to Fleischman, the court-appointed conservators moved her several more times before finally placing her in the Glendale convalescent home.

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Battle Moves to the Courts

Fleischman, meantime, has filed a flurry of lawsuits challenging the conservatorship and efforts by the conservators to strip him of his powers of attorney. He has also filed complaints with the State Bar of California against two opposing attorneys and has gone to court in hopes of blocking a court-appointed lawyer, the conservators and others from tapping his mother’s bank accounts for their expenses.

But legal costs in the case have begun to soar. And eventually those expenses will be borne by Joan Fleischman.

Robert E. Canny, one of seven lawyers helping Dan Fleischman, said his client has spent more than $100,000 so far. He estimated that the other side has run up expenses as high as $300,000.

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Kaplan and his allies “want to spend all of her money so Dan inherits nothing,” Canny said. “They’re killing Joan, I can see that. I’m talking about the legal system, the ghouls.”

Added another of Fleischman’s lawyers, John T. Blanchard: “It’s not a very flattering portrait of my profession.”

Stuart Zimring, the court-appointed attorney for Joan Fleischman, agreed that the case has “consumed an insane amount of time” with no end in sight.

“It’s a fascinating case, a depressing case,” Zimring said. “It’s extremely painful for me that the family chooses to fight over the remains while [Joan Fleischman] is still alive.”

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One of Kaplan’s lawyers, Ruth Phelps, declined to discuss the case in detail. But she acknowledged, “A case similar to this doesn’t readily come to mind.”

Others in the Fleischman family have been forced to choose sides.

Joan Fleischman’s two brothers are split--with one backing Kaplan and the other supporting Dan Fleischman, according to family members.

Her third son, 45-year-old Don Fleischman, a Jet Propulsion Lab employee, supports Kaplan but declined through him to discuss the dispute.

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Joan Fleischman’s estranged husband, Los Angeles business owner Arthur Fleischman, 83, likewise was unwilling to comment. “It’s horrible. What else can you think?” he said.

Joan Fleischman seemed unaware of the controversy when a reporter visited her at the convalescent home. Although not completely coherent, she responded with a clear “yes” when asked if she would prefer to be home.

One expert on conservatorships and financial abuse of the elderly, Kathleen Wilbur, a USC professor of gerontology and public administration, shook her head at the description of the Fleischman case.

“Sibling rivalries that have been around forever really show up” in times of family medical crises, Wilbur said.

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“When you have families that have old conflicts and a lot is at stake, it’s not surprising these things take place. It’s very tragic this happens at a time when ideally a family should pull together. It’s important to note that most families do.”

Kaplan and Fleischman said it’s probably too late for theirs to do that.

“The disintegration of our family is sad in its completeness,” said Kaplan.

“I guess we have a pretty dysfunctional family,” said Fleischman.

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