Judge splits Palm Beach couple; now trial on real estate empire

Updated Feb 05, 2018
Lucille “Lovey” Handelsman, age 89, and her 90-year-old husband, Burt, sit in court before the start of their divorce trial Monday, February 5, 2018. In dispute is the $500 million-plus real estate fortune the Palm Beach couple began building in the 1950s from their kitchen table in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post)

With no fanfare, a Palm Beach County judge declared the nearly 70-year marriage of Burt and Lucille “Lovey” Handelsman “irretrievably broken” on Monday, allowing the trial to focus on the breakup of the couple’s $500 million real estate empire.

Neither Lovey, 89, her 90-year-old husband nor their adult children showed any reaction to Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer’s surprise ruling that came minutes after the opening of what is expected to be a monthlong trial.

RELATED: Epic Palm Beach divorce starts Monday; will divide real estate empire

Attorney Joel Weissman, who represents Lovey, for months has been pushing Suskauer to end the Palm Beach couple’s marriage. Suskauer’s decision means Lovey is entitled to 50 percent of the empire that includes Worth Avenue shops, restaurants and office buildings in Delray Beach and West Palm Beach and other valuable land, stretching from Key West to upstate New York

“She’s absolutely thrilled,” Weissman said outside the courtroom. “She can now live her life in peace, knowing that whatever happens, she will receive fairness.”

Had Lovey died before the divorce was final, her share, which she plans to pass on to her children and grandchildren, would drop to about 30 percent, Weissman said. Burt repeatedly fought her efforts to end the marriage, with his attorneys arguing that the marriage and the real estate were inextricably intertwined.

Suskauer said the couple’s advanced years factored into his decision. “In light of the age of the case and the age of the parties, I find the marriage is irretrievably broken and grant the divorce,” he said.

Further, he said, even at the end of the trial, it’s unlikely he will be able to sort through complex financial and legal issues and immediately divide the far-flung property between Lovey, Burt and their three children. That, he said, would have further delayed the inevitable.

In a lighter moment shortly before Suskauer announced his decision, Lovey had to answer a series of boilerplate questions. “Are you pregnant?” Weissman asked her.

“I’ll be in the Guinness Book of World Records if I am,” Lovey said with a laugh from her perch in a wheelchair.

It promises to be one of the few moments of levity in the trial that pits Lovey and her three children against Burt. Illustrating the depth of the division, in videotaped depositions that were played for Suskauer, Burt referred to his three children as “those folks back there.”

When it was pointed out that “those folks” were his children, he said: “No, they’re not.”

Later, he conceded that while they might be his children biologically, he considers them “enemies.” The children — Steven Handelsman, Marsha Stocker and Sandy Heaslip — own and for years have managed much of the real estate their parents assembled. The siblings, now in their 60s and living in White Plains, N.Y., are fighting to make sure they aren’t forced to remain in business with their father.

During the videotaped depositions, Burt accused his children of stealing from him and holding his land hostage.

“They have kidnapped my buildings,” he said during one testy exchange with attorney Jeff Fisher, who represents the children. “I gave them those buildings as I thought a good parent should do. At that point, they were my children, before they left that position. I’m willing to pay ransom to get it back.”

While Lovey has said she filed for divorce in 2016 to escape Burt’s verbal abuse, she also said she learned he had fallen in love with another woman - Fort Lauderdale attorney Jane Rankin. She claims Rankin, a onetime trusted family legal adviser, was helping Burt siphon assets that rightfully belong to her, her children and grandchildren — a claim Burt denies.

During the videotaped depositions, Burt insisted his children “signed checks with my name without authorization,” but couldn’t remember if he’d ever confronted them about it. Further, he said he didn’t know how much his holdings were worth. He said he wasn’t familiar with documents that showed he had set his and Lovey’s net worth at $169 million or ones that showed the business brought in $105,000 a month.

To get quick cash to pay his lawyers after Lovey filed divorce papers, he said he sold a silver miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty to an antiques dealer he couldn’t name for $11,000 cash even though he wasn’t supposed to sell any joint property. Further, he said, he collected $2,200 in cash for rent from a tenant of a condo he and Lovey owned. He said he put the money in his pillow.

“Money doesn’t make it lumpy, it makes it very soft,” he said when Weissman asked what it was like sleeping on cash.

While the children occasionally exchanged glances or rubbed their faces, neither they nor their mother showed much reaction to Burt’s claims. On Tuesday, Burt is to be called to testify as a hostile witness by lawyers representing his wife and children.