- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
WASHINGTON – It's the quirky Christmases Catherine Falk remembers the most.
"To us, he wasn't 'Columbo.' He was dad," she told FoxNews.com of her famous father Peter Falk.
"He wasn't in character. He was the character. He was genuinely this bumbling, goofy, absent-minded guy who was so funny and loved his family," Catherine Falk, remembered with a laugh. "We'd give him these Christmas presents and he'd put them in his trunk and forget about them. Then the next Christmas would come around and he'd open the trunk of his Mercedes and there they'd be, all the present from last year."
The all-around funny family man would go on to create many happy memories with those closest to him. But when he got sick, things got complicated. His children accused his wife of alienating him. They said they weren't allowed to talk to see him and were denied any information about his health. It's a case that's being played out in thousands of households in America.
Across the country, there's been a sharp rise in adult children being denied access to their ailing parents. Several states are starting to take notice and moving forward with legislation that would open up visitation rights to children.
In Falk’s case, she and her stepmother, Shera Denise Falk, were locked in a nasty court battle over conservatorship and access to the elder Falk for years.
In 2008, the late actor became completely incapacitated as a result of his advanced dementia.
"Father's Day came and went and we couldn't reach him," his daughter said.
Out of options, Catherine Falk turned to the legal system for help only to find out she was in way over her head.
"Walking into probate court is like walking into San Quentin," Falk said. "I was racing against time."
Falk points to similar disputes where a third party can swoop in and cut out the children -- including the recent case pitting the children of B.B. King against his longtime manager. Before King's death in Las Vegas, one of his 11 surviving children sought to gain control of his affairs from his business manager who had power-of-attorney. Several daughters claim they were being kept from seeing the blues legend while he was in home hospice care.
For Falk, the court battle against her father's wife dragged on for nearly 7 months.
"You're sitting in a courtroom and it's so surreal," she said. "It cost me $100,000. Nobody has that kind of money. Most people in America don't have the financial resources to battle something like this."
It was then that she decided to create the Catherine Falk Organization, which advocates for the rights of adult children to see their sick parents.
While Falk was able to get an order for visitation from a court, that order was made at the complete discretion of the judge. As it exists now, conservators are not legally required to keep loved ones in the loop regarding the health, hospitalization or death of a relative.
“My sister and I never expected to come to the end of my dad’s life and have this happen,” Falk said.
Part of the problem, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto said, is the increase in tension between the second or third spouse and the children of the first marriage. That conflict often gets worse when a parent becomes sick.
Gatto said his office received thousands of emails regarding parental isolation and alienation and the frustrations over the legal options available.
“We’ve heard horror stories,” he told FoxNews.com, and added that legal fees now hit closer to the $200,000 mark.
Current California law provides all rights relating to the care of loves ones to spouses, which leaves children no legal avenue to arrange visitation with their ailing parents, to receive notice of hospitalization or even the death of that parent.
The child is also denied access to information regarding funeral arrangements.
Gatto’s legislation, if passed, would not only reverse the law but also create a new legal process for adult children to petition the court to visit a parent under care who is not in a conservatorship.
Last year the bill came close to passing. Gatto is optimistic this year it will clear the political hurdles, and believes California's law could serve as a blueprint for other states considering similar measures.
“Nobody denies that this is a problem that exists,” he said. “Yes, there are some high-profile cases but the issue itself is pretty common,” he said. “I believe California can lead the nation on this topic."
Other states like Connecticut and New York are making similar pushes.
In Utah, GOP state Sen. Todd Weiler said he was moved by Falk’s story and is looking forward to sponsoring visitation legislation in his state. Weiler told FoxNews.com that he feels it’s important to give family members a chance to say goodbye to loved ones. The plan, for now, he said is getting bipartisan support for a future measure that would cut out the lengthy courthouse battle.
In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad signed a bill into law in late April that grants adult children visitation rights unless the person’s guardian goes to court to stop them.
The legislation was backed by Kerri Kasem, the daughter of the late Casey Kasem, the long-time host of the “American Top 40,” radio program. Kerri Kasem and her siblings fought with her father’s wife for more than three decades over visitation rights. Kasem, like Falk, was suffering from dementia.
“I promise you, every single state will have what I have dubbed the visitation bill,” she recently told The Associated Press. “We need guardianship laws to change. We need visitation laws to change.”
For Falk, her next chapter brings her back to her father's roots: New York.
Peter Falk was born and raised in the Empire State, and it's where he met and married his first wife Alyce. Following her father's death and the legal drama surrounding it, Catherine Falk reached out to New York Democratic Assemblyman William Magnarelli to help change state law.
"Catherine knew that I was also a life-long New Yorker and a graduate of Syracuse University (like her parents), so she took a leap of faith that I would help her and other families struggling through these heart-wrenching situations," Magnarelli said in a statement. "And so I did."
While Magnarelli's legislation mostly mirrors measures in other states, it would also create an avenue for adult children to petition the courts for "reasonable visitation rights" because under current law children from a previous marriage can be denied the right to visit their incapacitated parent by the current spouse.
Calls to Shera Denise Falk were not immediately returned.