WEST PALM BEACH — The ongoing saga of the break up of a $550 million Palm Beach-based real estate empire took another strange turn this month when the children of Burt and Lucille Handelsman sued a lawyer who their mother blames for the demise of her nearly 70-year marriage.


In the lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, the 60-something children claim Fort Lauderdale attorney Jane Rankin used her role as the family’s trusted legal advisor to enrich herself at their considerable expense.


By cozying up to Burt Handelsman, the 91-year-old family patriarch turned family pariah, Rankin positioned herself to become executor of his multi-million-dollar estate when he dies and rake in millions in fees for her work, according to the lawsuit filed by West Palm Beach attorney Jeffrey Fisher.


Also, the suit claims, Rankin helped Burt forge legal documents and drew up an ill-advised long-term lease to financially punish 91-year-old Lucille and the couple’s three children, who Burt famously has described as “my enemies.”


Tallahassee attorney Richard Bush, who represents Rankin and her law firm, Kubicki Draper, said his clients wouldn’t comment on the legal malpractice lawsuit filed by the Handelmans’ children, Marsha Stocker, Steven Handelsman and Sandy Heaslip, who live in White Plains, N.Y.


For his own part, Bush said: “I have the highest respect for Jane Rankin. It’s an honor to represent her.”


Since Lucille filed for divorce from Burt in 2016, Rankin has been an ever-present figure in the epic legal fight for control of the real estate empire that stretches from Key West to upstate New York. The couple’s vast holdings include many of the storefronts on tony Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, buildings that house bars and businesses along Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach and property in West Palm Beach.


Lucille, known as Lovey, said she sued Burt for divorce after she heard him profess his love to Rankin. The 63-year-old real estate lawyer was not only the couple’s lawyer but also a friend. She and her husband regularly vacationed with the Handelsmans, according to court papers.


Since Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer granted Lucille’s request for a divorce on the opening day of a 2017 trial, Rankin’s role as the other woman wasn’t explored during hearings that dragged on for months.


Still, she was implicated in what Suskauer branded Burt’s “boundless pattern for dishonesty and misconduct.”


Rankin helped Burt commit “a fraud upon the court” by helping him doctor a document in an effort to strip his children of control of millions of dollars worth of property, Suskauer ruled.


Further, Rankin helped Burt negotiate a 99-year lease with a man Suskauer described as “a dubious individual,” Fisher claims. Rankin drew up the lease, knowing that the children — not Burt — controlled the $3.4 million office building on Fifth Street in West Palm Beach near the foot of the Flagler Memorial Bridge, he claims.


To underscore the lengths Burt and Rankin went to conceal their plans, Fisher said the lease was signed at an Italian restaurant near the family home in upstate New York. By going behind the backs of the children and Lucille, Rankin breached her fiduciary responsibility to represent the entire family, Fisher wrote.


The lawsuit, seeking at least $250,000 in damages, focuses on Rankin’s legal work in connection with the West Palm Beach office building. Additional lawsuits, involving her work on other Handelsman property, will follow, Fisher said.


Further, although Suskauer in April split the spoils of the couple’s 68-year marriage equally between Burt and Lucille, that legal battle is far from over. Some $5 million that Burt grabbed while Suskauer was deciding the messy case is still in dispute, Fisher said.


Once Suskauer settles that disagreement, more litigation will follow. Burt, who lost control of prime property in Palm Beach and the rights to his self-appointed title as “Mayor of Worth Avenue,” has pledged to appeal Suskauer’s ruling.


For their part, the children are also continuing their legal campaign to get their father out of their lives. They have filed lawsuits to evict him from his apartment and office in buildings they now control on Worth Avenue, Fisher said.


musgrave@pbpost.com


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