Saying he is tired of paying millions to lawyers to defend his $500 million real estate empire from attacks from his children and wife, 90-year-old Burt Handelsman on Wednesday insisted he is ready to divide his vast holdings and move on.
“At the expense of sounding weak or frail, I have been begging you to get this thing settled for months and months and months,” he told attorney Joel Weissman, who is representing his wife, Lucille, known as Lovey, in the complex divorce.
Noting that the trial will be suspended on Thursday, he suggested all sides take advantage of the lull to negotiate a resolution. “We can settle the case and the judge doesn’t have to see us anymore,” he declared.
But minutes after Burt extended what appeared to be an olive branch, it became clear that a deep chasm remains about how to fairly split the empire, which includes shops on Worth Avenue, restaurants and office buildings in Delray Beach and West Palm Beach, bars in Key West and antique stores in upstate New York.
Even Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer voiced skepticism that, after two years of contentious litigation, an accord was within reach.
“That hasn’t happened,” said Suskauer, who on Monday granted 89-year-old Lovey’s request to end the couple’s nearly 70-year marriage and is now trying to figure out how to divide the spoils. “That’s why I’m in a black robe. So, tell me what you have agreed upon.”
As Burt answered questions from attorney Jeff Fisher, who represents the couple’s three adult children, the answer became clear: Not much.
The children, who are aligned with their mother, and Burt have agreed on how to split some 45 pieces of property, a fraction of the far-flung empire, Fisher said.
Testifying for more four hours, Burt insisted he wants to keep many of his multi-million-dollar real estate gems on Worth Avenue, which are leased to such top-name tenants as Ralph Lauren, Jimmy Choo, Chase Bank and even the U.S. Post Office. But, Burt said, he isn’t going to pay the inflated prices appraisers representing Lovey and his children say they are worth.
Further, while Fisher and Weissman insist that Lovey and the children have worked hard to help build the empire, Burt disagreed.
For instance, he said he has no intentions of walking away from a sprawling piece of land along East Atlantic Avenue and the Intracoastal Waterway in Delray Beach. As with some of his other holdings, he said he has an emotional attachment to the estimated $16 million property, where The Blue Anchor Inn and various shops are located. “It was the first piece of property I bought in Florida,” he said.
When Fisher pointed out that Lovey, too, has strong feelings about the property and wants to own it with her children, Burt scoffed. “She had no part of the acquisition,” he said. Sitting nearby in a wheelchair, Lovey’s mouth fell open as she looked across the courtroom at her children, wincing.
Burt decried the real estate acumen of his children, who are now in their 60s and manage their share of the property from offices at the family home in White Plains, N.Y. But he said he had no problem remaining in business with them. “It would not be the worse thing in the world,” he said with a shrug.
Fisher reminded him, however, that neither Lovey nor the children want to continue to work with him. Using bank records and other financial documents, Fisher sought to illustrate why the children want to break off ties.
He quizzed Burt about why he entered into 99-year leases on several pieces of property in West Palm Beach, Stuart and Delray with a man who has judgments against him, has used several aliases and has paid his rent with checks that bounced. Fisher also questioned why Burt paid a contractor millions more for work than it cost, according to statements the contractor made when he obtained building permits from the town of Palm Beach.
Burt vigorously defended Babak “Bobby” Ebrahimzadeh, saying he has lived up to the terms of the long-term leaseholds, making millions of dollars of improvements. As for the contractor, he said it is well-known that builders low-ball the cost of their work to save money on building permits. The work he paid for was done and done well, Burt said.
Fisher also accused Burt of under-estimating the value of many of his buildings so he would end up with more valuable land than Lovey and the children. For instance, Fisher said, an appraiser for Lovey and the children said land on Worth Avenue where a Chase Bank, Tourneau jewelry and the U.S. Post Office are located is worth $21.4 million. Burt, citing the peril banks, stores and the post office face from the internet, put its value at about $11 million.
The trial, which is not expected to wrap up until early March, continues Friday.