Dividing Handelsman real estate empire takes center stage in divorce

After spending a month trading barbs about who did more to build their estimated $500 million real estate empire, Burt and Lucille Handelsman returned to a Palm Beach County courtroom Tuesday to begin laying out the thorny details of how to divide the remarkable spoils of their now defunct 70-year marriage.

Trying to figure out a way to evenly split property that houses such landmarks as the Hog’s Breath Saloon in Key West, the Blue Anchor pub in Delray Beach and some of the toniest shops on Worth Avenue isn’t easy, said accountant Richard Briscoe, who represents Lucille.

The task isn’t just financially complex, but emotionally fraught as well.

Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer, who granted Lucille’s petition for a divorce before the trial was suspended last month, is being forced to come up with an equitable way to divide the empire because 90-year-old Burt and 89-year-old Lucille disagree. They have far different opinions about the value of some of their holdings and are unwilling to let the other walk away with property they particularly like.

“I don’t want it,” Burt muttered under his breath as Briscoe described his plan to give him a storefront on South County Road in Palm Beach.

Further complicating matters is that Burt and Lucille, known as Lovey, aren’t the sole owners of the nearly 80 separate companies they formed to own and manage everything from a billboard in West Palm Beach that touts Palm Beach Atlantic University to a 1,000-acre golf course in the Catskills in New York.

The ownership of their property is shared with their three adult children. In many cases, the children are the majority owners and have been managing the property for years. Represented by attorney Jeff Fisher, they have made it clear that when their parents’ financial relationship is severed, they no longer want to be in business with their father — a desire Briscoe said would be almost impossible to accomplish.

In hopes of making it easier for Suskauer to figure out who should get what, Briscoe and an accountant representing Burt have tried to find common ground.

“We’ve met repeatedly to resolve as many accounting issues as we can,” Briscoe told Suskauer. And, he said, progress has been made.

The Palm Beach couple has agreed on who should get 50 of the companies, including letting Lucille have an estimated $4.5 million retail complex on East Atlantic in Delray Beach while letting Burt hold onto a shop and restaurant in Key West valued at about the same amount.

They also have agreed on who should get seven other assets but are still wrangling over their values. For instance, Lucille would let Burt have retail shops at 375 S. County Road in Palm Beach, but she believes it is worth $12.5 million while he claims it is only worth $7 million, Briscoe said.

And the two have reached an agreement on the value of property held by 10 other companies, but disagree about who should get what, Briscoe said.

However, Burt and Lucille vehemently disagree about both the value and how to split nine other companies, some of which control prime property in Palm Beach that is among the most valuable in their vast portfolio.

Under Briscoe’s plan, Burt would receive $71.3 million in holdings and Lucille would receive $70 million. While the adult children would continue to own and manage the bulk of the empire, they would have to continue to work with their father to manage property worth an estimated $25 million, including the Ralph Lauren store on Worth Avenue and the golf course in the Catskills.

Accountant Matthew Stohlman, who represents Burt, has a different plan on how to divide some of the contested property. He is expected to explain his distribution formula when the trial resumes April 23.

Suskauer has repeatedly asked Burt and Lovey to settle their financial differences without his help. Since Lucille filed for divorce in 2016, claiming she discovered Burt was in love with Fort Lauderdale attorney Jane Rankin, Suskauer has been inundated with financial documents.

At one point during Tuesday’s daylong hearing, Burt’s attorney, Alan Kluger, asked Suskauer: “Do you have the book,” referring to a 5-inch thick binder.

“I have seven,” Suskauer replied.

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