- By Jane Musgrave Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Lucille Handelsman has long blamed a Fort Lauderdale lawyer for stealing her 90-year-old husband’s heart, spurring the break up of her nearly 70-year marriage.
Now, the 89-year-old Palm Beach woman will get to find out whether attorney Jane Rankin also conspired with her husband to get a piece of the Handelsmans’ estimated $550 million real estate fortune, that includes shops and businesses stretching from Worth Avenue to Delray Beach to Key West to upstate New York.
In a rare move, the 4th District Court of Appeal on Friday ordered Burt’s attorneys to turn over an estimated 5,000 pages of documents, detailing work Rankin did for Burt after Lucille, who is known as Lovey, filed for divorce in March 2016.
Without detailing its reasoning, the West Palm Beach-based appeals court upheld a ruling by Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer that Burt could not claim work Rankin did for him was protected by attorney-client privilege.
In an October ruling, that was stayed while Burt appealed, Suskauer said Burt couldn’t claim any exchanges he had with Rankin were privileged because Rankin, for nearly two decades, served as the family’s trusted legal adviser. As such, she served as an attorney for not only Burt, but for Lovey and the couple’s three adult children, who now control much of the real estate empire, Suskauer ruled.
“Burt … pretends that Rankin is an independent lawyer that he consulted after Lovey filed for divorce, but that is not remotely the case,” Suskauer wrote. “Burt has chosen to communicate with (Rankin) … with no reasonable expectation that those communications would be cloaked in the privilege.”
Attorneys Joel Weissman and Jeff Fisher, who represent Lucille and the children, said they have no idea what they will find among the documents and emails that were handed to them in a large cardboard box.
They have long suspected Burt changed his estate plan and his will so Rankin would be a beneficiary of his life’s work.
“It may tell us that if Mr. Handelsman passes, Mrs. Rankin is our new business partner,” said Fisher, who represents the couple’s children who no longer want to be in business with their father. For his part, Burt has described his children as his enemies.
Even if Rankin isn’t in line to inherit Burt’s vast holdings, he may have named Rankin as the trustee of his estate, which would enable her to collect millions for her work, Fisher said.
Attorney Howard DuBosar, who represents some of the companies Burt controls, scoffed at claims that Rankin conspired with Burt.
“There’s no chance that Jane Rankin - a highly ethical attorney - would conspire to take someone’s assets,” he said. “That’s just ridiculous.”
Even before Lucille filed for divorce, documents show Burt gave Rankin power of attorney and named her as his health care surrogate, said Weissman, who represents Lucille. This week, Lucille testified that before she filed for divorce, she had no idea Burt had handed Rankin such power.
“I was heartbroken,” Lucille said of her reaction. “I was living with a man that I gave all my love and trust to, and look what he was doing to me.”
With the trial on hiatus until March 27, Weissman and Fisher said they will have time to analyze the documents. The trial began on Feb. 5 with Suskauer granting Lucille’s request for a divorce. The battle over how the couple should split the empire was to conclude Friday.
But with the couple bitterly disputing who should get what, Suskauer agreed to hold the hearing on March 27 and another week of trial beginning April 23.
Had Suskauer not divorced the couple on the opening day of trial, Rankin was expected to play a major role in it. But, she hasn’t escaped mention.
Lucille testified this week that she learned her husband was in love with Rankin in 2008 when she and Burt were on a cruise.
“I walked into the stateroom, and he was on the phone with his attorney, Ms. Rankin, and I heard him say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, dear, I love you dearly and I miss you very much’” Lucille testified. “And I have to tell you, it sort of stopped me in my tracks.”
While she threatened to divorce Burt then, she said she reconsidered when Burt promised to hire a new attorney.
Lucille said she wanted to keep a family vacation house in the Catskills “because I know anything Burt gets is going to go to Jane.”
Attorney Richard Segal, who represents Burt, tried to minimize her concerns. He reminded Lucille that “you haven’t seen a single document showing that any of its going to her.”
With Friday’s ruling, it appears, Lucille is finally going to find out.