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Burt Handelsman quizzed about love of lawyer in battle over empire

A battle over how to split Burt and Lucille Handelsman’s $500 million real estate empire intensified Tuesday as the 90-year-old land baron was quizzed briefly about his relationship with a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who has been painted as the other woman who prompted the divorce.

Attorney Alan Kluger, who represents Burt, objected to questions about Jane Rankin, the couple’s once trusted legal advisor, whom Lucille blames, in part, for destroying the Palm Beach couple’s nearly 70-year marriage.

“This is irrelevant,” Kluger said when Burt was asked about a 2008 conversation on a cruise ship when Lucille, known as Lovey, says she overheard Burt telling Rankin that he loved her.

Because Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer opened the trial on Monday by granting 89-year-old Lovey’s request for a divorce, questions about “all the unseemly stuff” are off-base, Kluger argued.

“You have already granted the divorce. This is only about the equitable distribution of assets,” Kluger said.

“This is just playing to those people in the back row,” he said, referring to a Palm Beach Post reporter and photographer who were watching the proceedings.

Burt said he remembered the cruise ship conversation. Joel Weissman, who represents Lovey, said the talk was relevant because it marked the start of Burt’s efforts to siphon assets that he legally has to share with his newly minted ex-wife.

“The wife says from 2008 to 2015, you took $1,080,000 from the marital estate,” Weissman told Burt. Further, he said, Burt failed to report more than $1 million in transfers between various companies, violating court orders to give his wife and her attorneys a full accounting of all of the couple’s far-flung business interests, some of which are controlled by the couple’s three adult children.

Knowing the divorce was pending, Burt also negotiated decades-long leases on several properties without consulting Lovey or his children. His actions, Weissman said in court filings, were an attempt to continue to control the empire “from the grave.”

Wearing his white hair tied back in a pony-tail and reading Weissman’s questions off an iPad to accommodate his hearing loss, Burt denied any wrongdoing.

In most cases, he said he had no idea what prompted the transfers or how the money was ultimately spent. Managing hundreds of pieces of property — including shops on Worth Avenue, businesses in Delray Beach and West Palm Beach, bars in Key West and a golf course in upstate New York — he says he constantly moves money around.

“I transfer money every single day of the week,” he testified. “It’s impossible (to say what happened to it).”

While he signed off on the court-ordered financial affidavits, he said they were prepared by attorneys. “With all due respect, I don’t prepare these things,” he said. “I have a whole bunch of lawyers. I do everything I can to cooperate.”

At times, Suskauer seemed to doubt Burt’s claims. “You can’t answer the question about where $1.148 million went?” he asked.

Burt explained that money was often transferred from one business to another. “It’s customary. It’s not unusual,” he said.

Suskauer also struggled to understand how Burt couldn’t remember where he got about $500,000 in December to help Lovey pay her $5 million legal bill.

“My wife is shaking her head over there, but if you knew how many transactions we do,” Burt said, nodding at Lovey, who was sitting nearby in a wheelchair. “I just can’t do it from memory.”

By mid-afternoon, Burt tired of the questions and his attorneys asked for a break. He is to return to the witness stand Wednesday to be questioned by attorney Jeff Fisher, who represents the couple’s children.

Lovey and the children — now in their 60s and living in White Plains, N.Y. — have asked Suskauer to divide the property so they don’t have to work with Burt.

While the children accompany their mother to court, they have no contact with their father in the cramped courtroom packed with dozens of boxes of evidence. In depositions, Burt has described his children as “his enemies” who are trying to destroy the empire he built.

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