- John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
There are many things families say frustrate them when it comes to Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt — the wife of a recently retired judge and tennis instructor who became a guardian for incapacitated seniors and other adults.
They objected in court to her taking of thousands of dollars in “retainers” without prior judicial approval.
They complained about her hiring a cavalcade of attorneys to fight her detractors in court, generating legal fees that came directly from the life savings of these seniors.
Others — including the former attorneys for one senior — railed against her refusal in court to say where she got the money to pay off a $308,000 foreclosure judgment on a Delray Beach home.
Such complaints litter her cases in the past two years. In October, Palm Beach County’s chief judge handed down sweeping rule changes, prohibiting retainers and addressing the credit-worthiness of guardians. Savitt points out she has never been removed from a case or sanctioned by a judge.
Her husband, former Circuit Judge Martin Colin, retired after The Palm Beach Post reported about his conflicts with his wife’s attorneys in the series Guardianships: A Broken Trust.
Savitt has also been accused in court documents of teaming up with other family members accused of taking advantage of the senior whose life — and life savings — she has vowed to protect.
And it has happened again.
Enter James Vassallo. When the Deerfield Beach handyman learned his brother and sister took about $180,000 from his father’s life savings, a lawyer told him to get a court-appointed professional guardian. In September 2014, he put his father into the hands of Elizabeth Savitt.
The siblings received demand letters initially from Savitt to pay back what they took. Then the guardian cut a deal with them. They didn’t have to pay it all back. They didn’t have to pay it back immediately. She even placed Vassallo’s father, Albert Sr., in the home of the daughter who had taken $130,000: Susan Mast.
The elder Vassallo died last November and now Savitt is serving as personal representative of his estate. Previously, she got James removed as a trustee to his father’s estate in an action that cost the senior Vassallo $22,000, the son says.
And now she has proposed a new deal to the family that would further benefit Mast from the father’s estimated $600,000 estate.
In an April 18 e-mail that was sent to five other siblings but not James, Savitt suggests they pony up out of their inheritance $54,000 for the care Mast claims she provided their father before the guardianship in 2014. Savitt provided no receipts, no proof of such care by Mast to the family.
“Savitt continues to engage in a pattern of behavior which tends to treat the person accused of harming the ward more favorably than other beneficiaries,” wrote Palm Beach Gardens attorney Thomas Dougherty, who represents James Vassallo, in an objection filed with the court.
The newest proposal comes nearly three years after Savitt negotiated the settlement with Mast and her brother, Albert Vassallo Jr., over the $180,000. Under the agreement, Mast would pay back about $62,000, while her brother would pay about $50,000.
Mast under the settlement didn’t have to account for missing assets in a savings deposit box or their father’s $13,000 Hyundai, which were listed in the demand letter. Mast never claimed during the settlement mediation that she was owed money for Albert Sr.’s care before guardianship.
Under Savitt’s newest proposal, Mast would have to pay back very little of her part of the $180,000 transferred from her dad’s account.
“Is this safeguarding my father’s money?” said James Vassallo, who didn’t agree to the settlement. “Susan was the one who made me get Betsy involved in the first place in all of this by taking money from my father. Now they are working together like they are partners in this thing. It’s hard to believe.”
Mast declined to answer questions about Savitt’s newest proposal. “Why are you calling me?” she said. “I was the only one who took care of my father. You better hope your father doesn’t get ill.”
Her brother, Albert Vassallo Jr., who must pay back $48,000 under the settlement, called a reporter and left a curse-riddled message saying not to contact his sister again.
Savitt, when asked about the Vassallo case while in court on another matter late last month, said: “Get your facts straight. The heirs know the facts.”
The facts are that the senior Vassallo lived next to James for three years in Century Village in Deerfield Beach. James says he has documentation declaring him his father’s caregiver from the Veterans Administration during this period.
His attorney, Dougherty, has seen this before when he represented a son of Lorraine Hilton, who was in a guardianship under Savitt.
The family of Helen O’Grady, another senior in a Savitt guardianship, told The Post in 2015 that the judge’s wife seemed to cater to certain relatives in order to cause acrimony within the family to generate litigation that led to more fees. After O’Grady died, Savitt took $30,000 from the senior’s life savings without prior judicial approval but a judge made her return most of it.
World War III
Savitt in her April 18 e-mail to the Vassallo family said Mast and Vassallo Jr. met at her attorney’s Boca Raton office in mid-April:
“They brought up Susan being paid back $54,000 for the care of her dad she provided for her dad the previous three years before guardianship,” Savitt wrote. “Apparently, she says she spent $128,000 for taking care of her dad but will settle for the $54,000.”
Savitt then asks the siblings to agree to pay Mast $10,800 each out of their inheritance.
“The guardian/trustee Elizabeth Savitt has failed to investigate any such claims and has failed to protect the assets of the guardianship and trust,” Dougherty wrote in his objection.
Savitt’s current attorney in the Vassallo case, Ellen Morris, wrote Dougherty an e-mail after he filed his objection stating that Mast was simply asking her siblings to “voluntarily contribute to her.”
“You incurred unnecessary fees for your client and turned this into WWIII for no reason,” the e-mail states.
Morris also took exception to Dougherty mentioning that the meeting took place at the attorney’s office — though he took that information from Savitt’s email to the family. “Neither Betsy nor I have anything to do with the payment,” she wrote.
She said Savitt didn’t send his client, James Vassallo, the proposal to pay Mast more money because the guardian knew he wouldn’t agree.
Currently, James and another brother, Ralph Vassallo, are trying to get answers from Savitt on the rest of their inheritance and $51,000 she apparently has carved out for fees.
“She is trying to put things up in the air. She is not being specific with what’s going on,” Ralph Vassallo said from his home Garden City on Long Island in New York. “I don’t understand why we just got a partial payment. She says maybe we will get the rest of the money in June. Why June?”
The brother says the worst part is that they have been so busy trying to get Savitt to release their inheritance that there hasn’t been time to grieve. “You can’t really heal,” Ralph said. “I feel like I’m being harassed by this woman. This should not be taking place.”
While she has released two-thirds of their father’s inheritance, James and Ralph Vassallo want Savitt to explain why she is holding on to two investment bonds worth $200,000.
Savitt told the family that if they cash in the bonds, they would incur a penalty. The Vassallos have reluctantly agreed to take the penalty in order to get their inheritance now but Savitt continues to hold onto the bond money.
James Vassallo has been one of Savitt’s foremost critics, discovering she doubled-billed her father in one instance and questioning in court the tens of thousands of dollars the guardian’s attorneys charged his father. He also brought up money to pay off her foreclosure in court, telling a judge he was worried Savitt was commingling personal and guardianship monies.
Savitt, after being questioned by The Post for more than a year on the foreclosure judgment, said she has shown the Clerk & Comptroller’s Office that the payment came from her personal account.
“She has a beef with me because I see everything she is doing,” James Vassallo said. “Nobody is helping me. No courts. No judge. Nobody. And she just keeps on going.”
James Vassallo said he didn’t learn of his father’s death from Savitt until the day of the funeral and is still trying to get answers on what he says are questionable expenditures during the guardianship.
James Vassallo said he has lost all faith in the court system because of his experience with Savitt and his father’s guardianship.
“I’m so disappointed with the courts that they allow this one guardian to do whatever she wants,” he said. “Why? Because she was married to a judge. … Common sense says something is going on here.”