WEST PALM BEACH — Burt Handelsman and Lucille “Lovey” Handelsman—aged 89 and 88 respectively—are responsible for one of South Florida’s most enduring real estate empires with valuable properties in—among other places—Delray Beach, Key West and Palm Beach, including lots of holdings on Worth Avenue.
The Handelsmans differ from most people their age not just in terms of wealth and achievement, but also for one other factor not common among couples married 67 years:
The Handelsmans are getting a divorce.
Lovey has accused Burt of carrying on an affair with 61-year-old Jane Rankin, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who works with them on business matters. Despite Lovey’s insistence, Burt would not discontinue the relationship, and became verbally abusive.
“He gets very belligerent and he starts to yell, ‘You don’t know anything. You haven’t worked a day in your life. Get out of my life,’” Lovey relayed. “I can’t handle it anymore. I said, ‘You know something, it’s time to quit.’”
Although Burt denies Lovey’s various allegations, their children seem to be sold on the story. They’ve fallen out with Burt (who referred to them in a deposition as “those three people”) and have more-or-less gone to war with him in the courts since word of the impending divorce came out.
The children voted to remove Burt from control of several of his properties. Burt sued them for pushing their mother to divorce him as some sort of convoluted cash grab; they sued him in turn for cheating them out of monies they were due.
“Crazy,” responded Jeff Fisher, lawyer for the couple’s son Steven Handelsman, on the subject of Burt’s claims. “The kids have been running the business for years. They grew up in the business. These are savvy real estate investors and managers with a very long-term plan. They would sell [property] because it’s losing money and invest in other things.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that the entire affair has become so contentious, given the Handelsmans’ real estate holdings are valued at $750 million, with $160 million of that in Palm Beach County alone.
It’s been a long journey for the Handelsmans, who come from modest beginnings and launched their real estate empire from their kitchen table in the 1950s, with Lovey on the typewriter and Burt taking an arts-and-crafts approach to framing investment opportunities, pasting photos of properties over Lovey’s typed descriptions.
It’s also been a long personal journey for the Handelsmans to reach the point of discord they currently occupy. They were apparently once very much in love, with Burt even naming many of his business ventures after Lovey.
Lovey and the kids seem to be winning the legal battles for the moment, having successfully removed Burt from the management of about 2 dozen of the family properties. Together with his lawyer mistress, Burt produced an agreement from 2002 providing that his children could not strip him of his management powers. The document, however, proved to be a laughable forgery cobbled together from a separate 2000 agreement, complete with correction fluid and no history of use from anyone in the family. The court promptly threw it out.
The complexity of the wealthy couple’s affairs works against Lovey, who would prefer a swift resolution. A divorce would guarantee her 50% of the couple’s assets, but if she dies while still married to Burt, her children could receive less than 30%. The family fears that its disenfranchised patriarch would favor his mistress in his own estate planning documents, but their attempts to get the courts to force Burt to turn those documents over have failed.
Oddly, Burt never expected it to come to this, and planned for his empire to continue as a family business.
“I envisioned having a generational company. I wanted all my grandchildren to come in,” he told a judge.
“I was hoping one day that, even though I wouldn’t be here to see it, I’d see my name on a hospital, a library, a museum,” Burt said further.
Whether Burt’s legacy will ever include such things remains to be seen. For the time being, his patronage is primarily directed to appraisers, accountants and his attorneys.