The day before the ailing Herbert H. Haft married his longtime companion in a hospital ceremony, his daughter tried to block the wedding by filing a petition in court that questioned the discount retailer's ability to make decisions.
On Aug. 17, Linda Haft asked the probate division of D.C. Superior Court to appoint a temporary guardian to decide whether her father was competent to decide to marry Myrna C. Ruben. Linda Haft's petition said that the 84-year-old Herbert Haft was "severely ill" and suffering from kidney and liver failure and that he "appears near death, cannot understand ordinary communication."
The court refused to take emergency action, and the wedding took place Aug. 18 at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Northwest Washington. Haft died Sept. 1, after roughly six weeks in the hospital.
The bid to stop the wedding was one of several legal steps taken by Linda Haft in the final days of her father's life. She wanted the court to name a guardian to oversee Herbert Haft's care and a conservator to oversee his financial affairs. The court filings said that much was at stake: an estimated $50 million in real estate and investment assets.
On Aug. 23 -- five days after the wedding -- Judge Jose M. Lopez appointed a court investigator, a mental health specialist and an outside lawyer to look into Herbert Haft's condition. In a court order, Lopez described Haft as unconscious and "wholly incapable of determining his . . . interest in this proceeding."
The judge set a hearing for today to decide whether Haft needed court protection. With his death, court officials acknowledged that Linda Haft's petition had become moot. Today, Lopez is expected to formally close the matter.
But the battle over Haft's competency -- and the legal validity of his marriage -- could well play out in the same courthouse if Haft's children continue the decade-long family warfare and contest their father's will, which is not yet public.
The infighting began in 1993 when Herbert Haft abruptly fired his elder son, Robert, from the family business. The contentious and very public strife tore apart the family and its business empire. Parts of the business that once included Dart Drug, Crown Books, Trak Auto, Total Beverage, Shoppers Food Warehouse and Combined Properties were sold or went into bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Herbert and Gloria Haft were divorced, and Herbert was estranged from his three children.
Last week, after Haft's death, his son Robert said that he and his two siblings had visited their father at the hospital and begun to reconcile. But differences apparently remained, including a lawsuit Robert filed against his father in July. The suit accused Haft of failing to pay $2 million that Robert said he was owed for helping to mediate a family dispute in 1999.
Lanny Breuer, an attorney for Haft's estate and his widow, Myrna Haft, said yesterday, "We remain hopeful that there will be no further proceedings in this case, but if there should be, we will zealously defend the estate."
As for the daughter's petition, Breuer said: "There was no basis for intervention because Mr. Haft retained sufficient capacity to handle his own financial and health matters, including the decision to get married. . . . He was obviously very conscious and alert at the time of his marriage."
David Branson, attorney for Linda Haft, said her petition was simply a case in which a "daughter did the right thing for her father."
"Mr. Haft was in the intensive-care unit on life support systems for several weeks," Branson said. "Given his fluctuating medical condition, his daughter was worried about his care and was surprised when she heard a marriage was to be conducted."
As to the future, Branson said, "We have no idea what's going to happen and have no plans to take any action."
On Aug. 26, in the midst of this legal maneuvering, Linda Haft's husband, Arthur A. "Buddy" Adler, was killed in a car crash in California. Linda Haft also suffered injuries in the crash.
According to Linda Haft's petition, Myrna Haft filed for a marriage license Aug. 12. The wedding could have significant legal consequences, according to lawyers not involved in the case.
"By marrying, Myrna Haft is guaranteed 50 percent of the estate unless there was a prenuptial agreement" or all the assets are in trusts, said Nicholas D. Ward, a Washington lawyer and former consultant at the register of wills.
Relatives and friends often seek a court's intervention and the appointment of a guardian or conservator to look after a mentally ill or vulnerable person who they believe is making decisions that put the person in physical or financial peril. If a judge determines that a person lacks the capacity to make good decisions, the court typically appoints an attorney to look after that person's interests. The attorney may control the person's bank accounts, can sell the person's real estate holdings and even can decide where the person can live.
C. Hope Brown, the investigator appointed by Lopez to check on Haft's condition, said yesterday that she was unable to gain access to him until she got a court order Aug. 31. She said she saw him Sept. 1, the day he died, but declined to provide details. Brown said she was reserving comments in case of further litigation.