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In prison for stealing from dad, man now makes claim to will in Pinellas court

Jim ZeBranek Jr., accused of money laundering, perjury and grand theft, was sentenced in 2013 to 20 years in prison.
Published May 21, 2017

In the last years of his life, James ZeBranek grappled with his oldest son's decision to steal $800,000 from him.

Jim ZeBranek Jr. was already serving his 20-year sentence when his 89-year-old father died in 2014. The retired doctor left his estate to his youngest son, Joel ZeBranek.

But now, from the confines of a prison cell, Jim is trying to pocket more of his father's funds after he was written out of the will.

"I plan to contest this probate as an heir wrongfully removed from the will by a person of unsound mind, my father," he wrote in a letter filed in the case.

For Joel ZeBranek, 55, the claim is more than just a legal fight. It's a painful reminder that the brothers may never reconcile.

"He's doing it again," Joel ZeBranek said. "My whole life, I was trying to help my brother. And I can't anymore. I can't. It's over."

• • •

The oldest of four siblings, Jim became a doctor just like his father. But since the beginning, the younger ZeBranek's career was tainted with trouble.

His medical license was suspended in 1988 after one of his patients died in ZeBranek's house in Monroe County. In 1999, he tested positive for cocaine. He was later evaluated by several doctors who concluded he had "sociopathic features" and bipolar disorder. ZeBranek was also accused of illegally running a medical clinic in Romania in 2005.

ZeBranek eventually moved back to Florida and lived in a Winter Park condo.

Court records detail how ZeBranek stole from his father. In 2008, when the elder ZeBranek was hospitalized after suffering a severe reaction to a diabetes medication, his son obtained a signed affidavit from a doctor stating his father was unable "to manage property."

The document was only intended for use while the elder ZeBranek was in the hospital. Instead, Jim used it to take over his Fidelity trust fund. He withdrew $800,000 and transferred most of the money to a Panamanian bank. Jim later claimed he planned to invest the money on behalf of his father.

In 2012, ZeBranek, now 61, was arrested in Texas on 14 counts of money laundering, two counts of perjury and one count of grand theft from an elderly person. The following year, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

His father cut him out of the will.

"As far as I am concerned," the elder ZeBranek told the Tampa Bay Times in 2012, "Jim is not a son of mine anymore."

• • •

More than two years after his father's death, Joel ZeBranek filed the will in January in Pinellas probate court. It names Joel as the beneficiary of the doctor's $557,859 estate, with $10,000 going to St. Anne of Grace Episcopal Church in Seminole.

Joel soon received a notice at his Cleveland home with the news that Jim filed a petition disputing the will. In court records, Jim argues that the will is invalid because his father was suffering from several ailments, including diabetes and dementia.

Jim also contends his brother should be disqualified from handling the estate because, he claims, Joel was convicted of felony battery in Cleveland. However, Cleveland court records show that Joel has never been charged with a felony offense.

"He has proven to me that he is willing to make bold-faced lies to advance arguments that have no merit," Joel said. "I guess he's got nothing better to do."

In a letter from prison, Jim reiterated that he has a right to the estate because his father was "under the duress of senile dementia."

"My brother Joel had means, motive, and opportunity to unequitably enrich himself by supporting this," he wrote.

In recent weeks, Joel takes solace in remembering the people who helped his father prepare his will before his final days. Joel was with the elder ZeBranek when he died at Morton Plant Hospital on Sept. 11, 2014.

"Estate planning is important," Joel said. "You never know down the road what's going to happen."

Richard Pearse, a Clearwater attorney representing Joel, said Jim would have to submit evidence of the deceased doctor's "incapacity" at the time he revised his will. In 2010, Jim also filed a petition to become his father's guardian, but the case was dismissed, records show.

"I'm not aware that there are any medical records," said Pearse, who represented the elder ZeBranek in the guardianship case. "Allegations made by a convicted perjurer, in my opinion, are always suspect."

In the past, Jim has sent his brother dozens of letters. Joel sometimes wrote back. He wanted Jim to get a shorter prison term and hoped they could reconnect after Jim's release in 2031. In Florida, prisoners have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. In one letter, Joel wrote he planned to execute the will and asked his brother not to get involved.

"He crossed a line and he's forcing me to fight and I don't want to," Joel said. "I'm a big believer in second chances. But not third chances."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.

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