Beginning with a dream, a typewriter, a Brownie camera and rubber cement, Burt and Lucille Handelsman built a real estate empire that encompasses some of the toniest shops on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, restaurants in Delray Beach, bars in Key West and retail complexes in upstate New York.
Then, last year, after 67 years marriage, Lucille, known as “Lovey,” filed for divorce.
With an estimated $750 million in far-flung real estate holdings at stake, the 88-year-old Lovey knew she had made a seismic decision and prepared for the worst.
The Handelsmans’ Palm Beach County properties
Here are the locations of Burt and Lucille ‘Lovey’ Handelsman’s holdings in Palm Beach County, according to the Property Appraiser’s Jan. 1, 2017 valuation. They are valued at $160 million. (Zoom out to see the Handelsmans’ other properties in Lantana, West Palm Beach and Delray Beach.)
As she expected, the divorce now unfolding in Palm Beach County Circuit Court is likely to be one for the record books, even in a county where contentious multi-million-dollar divorces are as common as shoes at Jimmy Choo — one of the Handelsmans’ Worth Avenue tenants.
Burt Handelsman, 89, responded to his wife’s action by refusing to move out of their Worth Avenue apartment and balking at her request for temporary support. He then sued the couple’s three adult children, claiming they pushed their mother to divorce him as part of a twisted plan to line their own pockets. Not to be outdone, the children sued back, claiming their father bilked them out of roughly $8 million.
Further, shortly after the divorce was filed, the children, all in their 60s, voted to strip their father of control of roughly two dozen properties in his massive portfolio. In response, he uncovered a document that, he claimed, dictates that only death or dementia can pry him away from his companies. It’s a forgery, the children responded, claiming their father used Wite-Out to alter an agreement that put them in control.
At its most basic level, Lovey’s reason for ending the marriage isn’t unlike one that spurs far younger and far poorer couples to head to divorce court, said her attorney, Joel Weissman.
Burt fell in love with someone else, Lovey said in a deposition. While Burt promised to end the relationship, he didn’t. Instead, she said, he became verbally abusive. Eventually, she couldn’t take it anymore.
“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, who is crippled by arthritis and confined to a wheelchair, said in the deposition. “I can’t handle it anymore. I said, ‘You know something, it’s time to quit.’”
While Burt denies Lovey’s allegations of insolence and infidelity and claims he still loves his wife of nearly seven decades, the so-called other woman figures prominently in the financially and legally complex divorce.
The alleged other woman, longtime family friend, Jane Rankin, is a 61-year-old Fort Lauderdale lawyer who helped the Handelsmans build their empire and, Weissman claims, put herself in a position to one day control much of it.
Most agree that from all appearances, the Handelsmans were living the American dream — one where shoe leather and hard work translated into enormous riches.
Burt Handelsman traces his success to an article he read in a tabloid newspaper in 1950 while living in Brooklyn, N.Y. It said that 95 percent of Americans were fighting to earn $1 while only a quarter of 1 percent had their sights set on making $10,000.
“Why fight 95 percent of the people if I only have to fight one-quarter of 1 percent of them,” he said of the article that inspired him to pursue his budding interest in what was then known as real estate syndication.
The business, he said wryly, began “inhouse, and I mean inhouse on the kitchen table.” Using carbon paper, Lovey would type up a description of an investment opportunity. Burton would use his Brownie camera to take pictures of the property, paste them on the papers and use them to lure prospective investors.
“It turned out to be very successful, and I did another one and then another one,” he told Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer. “And pretty soon, we were on Madison and 42nd Street.”
But he said he decided he wanted to build a family business. So he bought out the investors and went into business for himself.
By 1999, he said he owned more than 300 properties, many that were heavily mortgaged. His reading interests had also changed. “At that point, I stopped reading tabloids, I started reading the Wall Street Journal,” he said. Newspaper articles convinced him that many real estate investors failed because they were overextended, he said.
“I decided to sell off,” he explained. “And when you want to sell off and pay your debts, unfortunately, you have to sell the best, so I sold the corner of 48th Street and Broadway, 43th Street and Broadway, (and land in) Southampton.”
Moving to Palm Beach County while keeping their office in the family’s sprawling home in White Plains, N.Y., north of Manhattan, the Handelsmans continued buying and selling properties. Their holdings in Palm Beach County are valued at $160 million by the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office as of the Jan. 1 valuation.
The Handelsman family is one of the largest landowners on Worth Avenue. They own storefronts along Atlantic Avenue in Delray, Ocean Avenue in Lantana and Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach. Their holdings include property in the Keys and in Brooklyn, White Plains, Cold Spring and other cities in the state of New York.
But Burt and Lovey lived simply. Until he was forced to move out and pay her temporary support, they shared a one-bedroom apartment over Kassatly’s, a family-owned linen and sleepwear store that has been a fixture on Worth Avenue for decades. Wearing his thin white hair pulled back in a short ponytail, he could often be spotted on Sunday mornings picking up discarded coffee cups and other trash along the avenue.
Lovey said Burt thought she was wasteful when she shopped at Publix, arguing that he could get the same items cheaper at Costco. She admitted she, too, is budget conscious. When she moved out of their apartment, she got a room, not a suite, at the Colony Hotel.
“I can’t do that,” she said of why she didn’t get a bigger room for herself and her aide. “I’m from the old school. I can’t spend money like that.”
Love for Lovey
Most of the nearly 100 companies Burt formed to buy and manage their property include the name “Love,” a nod to his wife’s lifelong moniker, Lovey. To name a few, there’s Love’s Tee Time, for a golf course he owns the Catskills; Love Mile Marker I, LLC, for a landmark building he owns in Key West that is home to the Hog’s Breath Saloon; and Love’s Gallery Place LLC, a Worth Avenue building that houses Wally Findlay Galleries.
But, at this point, there’s little love in the Handelsman family.
During a deposition, Burt referred to his children as “those three people.” Weissman said the fallout from the looming divorce has turned Burt into a pariah in the family, which includes not only children but grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His own attorneys admit as much.
Attorney Alan Kluger, who represents Burt, has said in court records that the entire divorce is simply a money grab by the kids.
He also denies Burt and Rankin were having an affair. Rankin and her husband went on vacations with the Handelsmans, all parties have agreed in court testimony. “Her husband was with her,” Kluger said. “She has been a trusted advisor to the Handelsman real estate empire for 20 years. She’s a first-class real estate lawyer.”
Contrary to Kluger’s claims, the Handelsman children neither encouraged their mother to divorce their father or are trying to destroy the empire he built, said attorney Jeff Fisher, who represents the couple’s son, Steven Handelsman, and their daughters, Marsha Stocker and Sandy Heaslip.
“Crazy,” Fisher said of Burt’s insistence that his children, who live in New York, want to dismantle his life’s work. “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 some (property) because it’s losing money and invest in other things.”
Already, after dozens of hearings, the children — and Lovey — have won a significant round in the ongoing battle.
Calling documents Burt produced “a sham,” Judge Suskauer this month refused to put Burt back in charge of about 25 properties his children control and manage through the Love Family LLC. Burt told Suskauer that he, with help from Rankin, “discovered” a 2002 operating agreement that barred his children from stripping him of management of the company, which controls an estimated $70 million worth of real estate.
But Fisher successfully argued that the “discovered” document is a poorly-crafted forgery of the agreement all family members signed in 2000. According to the 2000 agreement, the children controlled 80 percent of the company, so were within their rights to vote to remove him as manager in July 2016, the children’s attorney argued.
Not only had Wite-Out obviously been used to try to make the phony document look authentic, but for 13 years Burt used the 2000 agreement to obtain an estimated $50 million in bank loans, Fisher said. Also, the document had been used by Burt, Lovey and their children for more than a decade to report their earnings to the Internal Revenue Service.
Suskauer said Burt’s repeated use of the 2000 agreement belied his claims that it was replaced in 2002 with one that made him manager for life. “To permit the husband to circumvent his own deeds and words … simply to avoid the consequences of his historical acts … (would) create an atmosphere of chaos for no purpose other than to prolong, delay and impede the purpose of the judiciary in determining the truth and to mete justice,” Suskauer wrote.
While Suskauer’s order preserves the children’s control over a slice of Burt’s empire, many questions remain about how such a massive estate can be split. “There’s hundreds of companies with all kinds of inter-company loans,” Fisher said. “We have to find a way to unscramble the eggs.”
In the meantime, as appraisers and accountants try to sort out the complexities, there is an inescapable clock ticking. Both Burt and Lovey have outlived most of their contemporaries. The question — both legal and practical — is whether they will both live to see their divorce.
To make sure Lovey gets the divorce she longs for, Weissman asked Suskauer to grant it and figure out the thorny financial questions later. Suskauer, relying on court decisions that indicate a spouse has to be near death for a judge to take such an action, looked at Lovey’s general good health and refused. A monthlong trial to decide the terms of the divorce is scheduled for February.
Weissman has appealed Suskauer’s ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal. The reason Lovey wants a divorce now isn’t just emotional, it’s financial, Weissman argued.
Under Florida law, Lovey gets 50 percent of the empire she helped Burt build if the couple divorces. But if she dies before she is granted a divorce, she — and ultimately her children and their children — could receive less than 30 percent, her lawyer said.
Weissman and Fisher also said in court documents they suspect Burt created an estate plan and trusts with the help of his longtime lawyer, Rankin. Worried that the documents could limit the amount Lovey would get in the divorce, the attorneys asked Suskauer to force Burt to turn over the documents.
Attorney Richard Segal, who represents Burt along with Kluger, objected. “Someone’s will and estate plan are sacrosanct documents,” Segal said during a recent hearing. “They have no right to find out how he wants to distribute his assets.”
Suskauer seemed to agree. “What business is it of yours?” he asked Weissman.
Accountants and appraisers would determine how the empire is divided, the judge said.
“I’d hate this case to be sidetracked on the issue of Rankin,” Suskauer said. “The focus should be with the accountants — having them address what the appraisers say the values are.”
But, Weissman and Fisher insisted, the documents and Rankin’s involvement with them are important to help determine the value of the Handelsman holdings. In hearings, Rankin has declined to answer questions about the documents, claiming she can’t divulge private talks between her and Burt, her client. In court documents, Fisher said that in 2014 Burt told U.S. Trust that Rankin was the executor of his estate.
While Suskauer said he may ultimately decide to review Burt’s will and estate documents privately, he urged both sides to work toward a settlement or be prepared for trial early next year.
For his part, Burt said he never expected to be involved in a divorce. Like Lovey, he said he planned to turn his empire over to his family. “I envisioned having a generational company,” he told Suskauer. “I wanted all my grandchildren to come in.”
He wanted to build a legacy. “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,” he said.
But, he insisted, he doesn’t plan to ever stop working. “I enjoy what I do immensely,” he said.
Staff writer Paige Fry contributed to this story.
Staff writer Paige Fry contributed to this story.