WEST PALM BEACH — Burt Handelsman and Lucille “Lovey” Handelsman—aged 90 and 89 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 in the upscale Worth Avenue district.
Now, that substantial empire is set to be fractured, as their divorce proceedings commenced Monday in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, prompted by Lovey’s filing.
The Handelsmans were married for over 67 years.
The couple came 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.
Now, though, Lovey has accused Burt of carrying on an affair with 62-year-old Jane Rankin, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who worked with them on business matters. Despite Lovey’s insistence, Burt would not discontinue the relationship, and became verbally abusive.
Burt denied Lovey’s various allegations, though their children have sided with Lovey. (Burt since referred to the kids in a deposition as “those three people.”) Lovey and the kids went to court and successfully removed Burt from the management of about two 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.
Subsequently, in November, Scott Suskauer, the judge on the case, ruled that Burt and Rankin committed a “fraud on the court” via the false document debacle.
“Burt now admits that Rankin’s portion of their coordinated story was materially inaccurate … (supporting) the court’s conclusion that the entire tale was an intentional fraud on the court,” Suskauer wrote.
The judge urged the Handelsmans and the kids to resolve their differences and address the business empire without the court’s involvement, though the feud has simply become too bitter to resolve any other way.
The vitriol even spread to the parties’ attorneys.
“Burt is a classic megalomaniac,” wrote Jeff Fisher, who represents the children.
“The adult children hope to see Burt crumble,” accused Burt’s attorney, Alan Kluger.
As it happens, there’s a lot to fight about, even laying aside the personal drama. The Handelsmans’ real estate holdings were valued last year at $750 million at the onset of their legal battles, with $160 million of that in Palm Beach County alone.
The divorce would guarantee Lovey 50% of the couple’s assets, but if she dies before the divorce is finalized, her children could receive less than 30%, a real concern given her advanced age. The family fears that its disenfranchised patriarch would favor his mistress in his own estate planning documents.
“The wife implores the court … to pronounce the parties’ marriage is irretrievably broken in order to assure the Wife her equitable distribution will not be jeopardized by any untimely death or illness,” wrote Joel Weissman, Lovey’s attorney.
So far, Suskauer has not seen fit to grant the request.
The business affairs are especially complicated since the parties can’t agree on values and ownership is mixed between Burt, Lovey and the children in many instances.
But and his legal team have put forth the argument that he is entitled to a greater share than Lovey since he was primarily in the driver’s seat with respect to growing the business. Fisher countered by comparison to University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban and Miami Heat basketball coach Eric Spoelstra.
“If Nick Saban or Eric Spoelstra claimed that a championship victory was solely the result of their great coaching and had nothing to do with their ‘team,’ they would be the subject of scorn and ridicule and probably fired,” Fisher asserted. “Burt Handelsman shamelessly claims that the entire empire is his creation giving no credit to the decades of work by his wife, children and in-laws.”
It appears that Suskauer, despite his best efforts to make peace, will have his work cut out for him.