Elizabeth Savitt, the former judge’s wife and professional guardian who has been the subject of numerous complaints from families of incapacitated seniors, is being investigated by the state’s new Office of Public & Professional Guardianship.
The office is the state’s new watchdog for guardians that was established after lawmakers heard about abuses of incapacitated seniors and their finances by court-appointed professionals.
The office confirmed on Thursday it has received at least one legally sufficient complaint against Savitt and that it has been forwarded to the Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller for investigation.
Savitt’s actions have gotten the attention of at least one lawmaker.
“I’m horrified by the fact that she is currently a guardian, that there are wards or families that have to depend on her or she can have the power to manage the affairs of the ward after everything that has come to light,” said state Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Delray Beach. “After all the facts come out, if there is enough evidence, I will call for the state attorney to make this a criminal investigation.”
If wrongdoing is found, the clerk will forward a report to the state guardianship office and an administrative procedure will begin, giving Savitt a chance to respond. The office will then determine what discipline — if any — is appropriate. Savitt could be stripped of her state registration — a requirement to serve as a guardian in Palm Beach County.
Savitt has taken tens of thousands of dollars in fees prior to judicial approval as a guardian or personal representative, The Palm Beach Post has previously reported. The act of getting a “retainer” is strictly prohibited under new state rules. It is also prohibited by new rules in Palm Beach County handed down by the chief judge this past fall in the wake of The Post’s series, Guardianships: A Broken Trust, investigating Savitt and her husband, former Circuit Judge Martin Colin.
Another repeated complaint about Savitt is she uses savings from incapacitated seniors for relatives of the ward who had previously been accused of financially — and even physically — taking advantage of the seniors. Families also say she pits relatives against each other in order to generate litigation, which increases fees for herself and her attorneys. Those fees also come from the life savings of the incapacitated senior in guardianship.
Savitt — a tennis instructor before becoming a guardian — has claimed she is being unfairly targeted by disgruntled members of families of those in her guardianships. She has pointed out she has never been removed from a guardianship case by a judge — though she has resigned from cases as criticism mounted.
Savitt did not respond to e-mail or a voicemail asking her for comment on the new investigation.
The state investigation into Savitt remains confidential and the clerk’s office could not comment. It is unknown whether the investigation emanates from one or multiple complaints.
Slosberg said she met with the Department of Elder Affairs to determine whether the new law adopted by the Legislature this past year could be used retroactively against Savitt and other guardians accused of abuse. The agency says that though it can’t hold professional guardians to laws just adopted, it can use them to mete out discipline for violations of long-standing guardianship statutes.
She said state representatives have a duty to protect people who cannot protect themselves. “Incapacitated seniors needed the state’s help to prevent guardian abuse and we passed legislation last year. It is outrageous as we sit here today that not one guardian has been disciplined,” she said.
At least one complaint against Savitt to the new guardianship office came from Daniel Schmidt, the former Boca Raton resident who took care of Carla Simmonds, a stroke victim, while she was in a Savitt guardianship.
Savitt resigned from the Simmonds guardianship after Schmidt successfully fought her efforts to get access to the stroke victim’s $640,000 trust, which wasn’t part of the guardianship, and a $46,000 retirement account. Schmidt is still fighting attorney fees.
Schmidt said he hopes the complaint to the state will “have Elizabeth Savitt eradicated from guardianship and that criminal charges will be filed against her, her husband and her lawyers.” He said his lawyer spent several hours with the clerk’s investigators.
After The Post’s initial investigation published in January 2016, complaints continued to surface about Savitt in her guardianship cases, including accusations by the former attorneys for senior Frances Berkowitz that $400,000 is missing from the guardianship about the same time she paid off a $308,000 foreclosure judgment. There is an open investigation by the clerk’s office into this case.
Savitt said she filed an inventory in the Berkowitz case, showing only $18,000 in the senior’s accounts. Her attorney said that the guardian had provided the clerk’s office documentation that she paid off the foreclosure judgment from personal accounts.
Savitt’s husband, former Circuit Judge Martin Colin, retired this past year after the series spelled out his conflict of interest because of his wife’s work as a guardian and how her attorneys appeared before him in other cases. Savitt did not appear before her husband, but many of her cases were in front of a family friend, Circuit Judge David French.
Before she became a professional guardian, Colin and Savitt’s finances were marked with foreclosures, liens, and unpaid debts.
“We are talking about the most vulnerable citizens in our state and for these guardians like Savitt, it’s all about money, money, money,” Schmidt said. “I don’t know how this could be allowed to go on for so long.”
Complaints about Savitt
Here are some of the cases in which complaints were leveled against professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt.
Albert Vassallo Sr.: She placed the senior in the home of a daughter who transferred $180,000 from her father’s account. Savitt also doubled-billed and removed the senior’s son from Vassallo Sr.’s trust, a move that generated tens of thousands of dollars in fees.Vassallo died in November, but she has yet to pay all of the inheritance and suggested giving the daughter an additional $54,000.
Carla Simmonds: Tried to get court approval to get access to the stroke victim’s trust, which wasn’t part of the guardianship, and a retirement account. The new guardian is still fighting attorney fees.
Frances Berkowitz: Faces questions about $400,000 allegedly missing from the senior’s bank account and how she paid off a personal foreclosure judgment. Her lawyer said she provided a statement to the clerk’s office proving it came from her own money. The clerk’s office is investigating. Berkowitz died in December and her heirs are fighting to remove Savitt as personal representative.
Helen O’Grady: After O’Grady’s death, Savitt claimed she was the curator of the senior’s estate, took $30,000 without court approval and asked for an additional $55,000 in fees. A judge made her give most of the $30,000 back.
Lorraine Hilton: Court documents say Savitt’s actions financially benefited Hilton’s son Robert, who was accused of physically abusing and stealing from his mother.
Robert Wein: Savitt tried to get the authority to annul the senior’s marriage, contending he and his wife were divorced. The wife, Vita Wein, said Savitt simply wanted to cut her out of Wein’s savings.
What The Post Found
The savings of incapacitated seniors flow into the household of former Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin courtesy of Colin’s wife — professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt. Since The Palm Beach Post published its series Guardianship: A Broken Trust, Palm Beach County and the state have made major reforms in the guardianship system.
To read our series, go to www.mypalmbeachpost.com/guardianships