PBC judge now poised to divide massive spoils of Handelsman divorce

Aug 31, 2018
Lucille and Burt Handelsman. (Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post)

After dozens of court hearings punctuated by claims of dishonesty, infidelity and greed, a Palm Beach County circuit judge is finally poised to decide how to divide up Burt and Lucille Handelsman’s estimated $550 million real estate empire.

In hundreds of pages of documents filed late Friday, attorneys representing the elderly Palm Beach couple and their three adult children made their final pitches to Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer.

At stake is tens of millions of dollars in real estate including shops on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, restaurants and bars on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, storefronts on Ocean Avenue in Lantana, office buildings in West Palm Beach, bars in Key West and commercial buildings, a golf course and shopping centers in upstate New York and elsewhere.

In their written closing arguments, the attorneys continued the biting themes that have consumed the epic divorce trial that has played out in fits and starts since February.

“He lies. He cheats. He steals, and when unable to accomplish the above unilateral(ly), he recruits others to accomplish his misdeeds,” Lucille’s attorney Joel Weissman wrote, summing up Burt’s behavior.

“The evidence established that Burt will take anything he can from any source he can get it from, no matter how small the amount and no matter what moral, ethical, or legal barriers would otherwise be in the way,” agreed attorney Jeff Fisher, who is representing the couple’s three adult children that already control much of their parent’s empire.

Now in their 60s and living in upstate New York, the children are fighting to convince Suskauer to divide their parent’s vast holdings so they are no longer in business with their father and their mother isn’t punished.

For his part, Burt has said he considers his children his “enemies” and proved it by suing them over their control of some of the real estate.

Attorney Richard Segal, who represents Burt, disputed the characterization of the man who is known as the “Mayor of Worth Avenue,” saying he has been the victim of “character assassination.”

Segal painted the children as the driving force behind the vicious attacks on Burt. “The sad truth is Ms. Handelsman’s wants and desires took a backseat at trial to the children’s attempt to dethrone their father,” Segal wrote in his 97-page motion.

He urged Suskauer to look dispassionately at the evidence, divide the property equitably and ignore the children’s efforts to vilify Burt. “Here is to hope that a well balanced final judgment might bring this family back to reality and hopefully one day in the future they all can reunite and reconcile,” he wrote.

Suskauer opened the trial in February by granting 89-year-old Lucille’s request for a divorce from her 91-year-old husband after 67 years of marriage. Lucille, known as Lovey, claimed Burt fell in love with the couple’s trusted lawyer, Fort Lauderdale attorney Jane Rankin. Granting the divorce was the easy part.

The difficult part is dividing up the property. The dollar figures are eye-popping.

The couple has already agreed on how to split up 55 pieces of property valued at roughly $175 million, Weissman said. However, they are still warring over some of the gems of their empire, including most of their property on Worth Avenue, Delray and Lantana. While only 26 properties remain in dispute, they are among the most expensive ones.

In addition, they are arguing over family keepsakes, including a shaving mug collection valued at more than $1 million.

For months, Suskauer has pleaded with the couple and their children to reach a resolution. At one point, he said: “It wouldn’t shock me if everyone’s unhappy with my ruling down the road. There are no winners. No one would walk away happy.” Still, no accord could be reached.

Suskauer has not indicated when he would rule. It is likely to be months.

Whether his word will be the last is a looming question. During the trial, Burt told Lucille she wouldn’t live to see the end of the legal wrangling, Weissman wrote.

“When the court was in recess my husband, Burton Handelsman, approached me and stated, ‘This process will take at least 10 more years,’” Weissman wrote, quoting Lucille.