Guardianship News:

Florida: The Judge’s wife, a frequent court-appointed guardian

Professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt, married to Judge Martin Colin, says complaints from families of double billing and sending disputes to court to run up fees are ‘frivolous’ and ‘baseless.’ (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post) Professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt, married to Judge Martin Colin, says complaints from families of double billing and sending disputes to court to run up fees are ‘frivolous’ and ‘baseless.’ (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

 A Note from Dr. Sam Sugar, founder, AAAPG: 

This is the tip of the iceberg. The guardians hire the most expensive lawyers with the most intimate knowledge of  every quirk in the law to represent them (at the ward’s expense of course) because without the lawyers having their back, the guardians would not have the “chutzpah” to attempt of this sort of malfeasance–even if your husband is a probate judge and the judge who hands you all your cases is his buddy and your close friend.

The stench emanating from Probate courtrooms all over the country, and especially in the largest and wealthiest counties in Florida is overpowering to everyone but the Judges who oversee the system and the lawyers and predatory guardians they shield from criminal prosecution.

Thanks to Fl. Sen.Nancy Detert and her determination to make a difference, the passage of SB232 marks a start towards administrative discipline for abuse, but we must go further. Anyone but a guardian who steals as much as they do would be called a criminal and prosecuted. There are already laws on the books that make elder and ward abuse a felony.

Now, State’s Attorneys must answer why not a single predatory guardian or attorney has been indicted. The Supreme Court must answer how they have failed so miserably to provide Florida with justice, protection and trustworthy courts. Chief Judges in Palm County must answer why they have allowed such an obviously improper situation to go on for many years.

There is much more work to be done and much more to uncover.

Dr. Sam Sugar
Founder, AAAPG
January 15, 2016

 

One in a series of articles from Florida’s Palm Beach Post, written by John Pacenti, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, and produced by Kristyn Wellesley and Gurman Bhatia

Related articles:

  1. Read Judge, wife benefit from frail seniors’ money, Part 1, here.
  2. Read Judge’s history of debt: Foreclosures, IRS liens, Part 2, here.
  3. Read Judge appears to routinely violate Florida Judicial Code of Conduct , Part 3, here.
  4. Read Attorney – ‘Courts have allowed this culture’, Part 4, here.
  5. Read Chief judges presided over guardian’s divorce while judges take vacations together, Part 5

Judge’s wife accused of taking fees before court OKs them

Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, a tennis pro turned professional guardian for incapacitated senior citizens, profits from her marriage to a sitting judge, a Palm Beach Post investigation has uncovered.

As the wife of Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin, Savitt wields power in her husband’s Probate & Guardianship Division, where guardians are appointed to take over the lives of seniors no longer able to care for themselves. Fees for guardians and their attorneys are paid from the assets of their elderly wards and approved by the court.

In several cases, Savitt has taken tens of thousands of dollars from their accounts without prior court permission, The Post found in court documents.

The chief auditor for Palm Beach County’s clerk and comptroller says that in about 800 guardianship cases he’s reviewed, only one guardian has taken money without first getting court approval: Judge Colin’s wife.

Some of the seniors’ family members express frustration with what they say are unnecessary legal disputes pursued by Savitt that drive up fees for her and her lawyers, depleting their loved one’s assets. In addition, they say Savitt funneled cash and assets to family members accused of financially, or in one case, even physically abusing the senior she is sworn to protect, court documents show.

In December 2014, Savitt held a “mini estate sale” advertised on Craigslist at Judge Colin’s address. “Cleaned out a home and selling all I could find,” the ad said. A lawyer said in court that he was concerned the items belonged to one of the seniors.

In another case, court records show Savitt, working for a family guardian, seized items inside a home and helped load them onto a moving truck. A lot of the items, however, belonged to the homeowner and not the senior. Sheriff’s deputies and a judge made Savitt and her attorney return the items.

Savitt doesn’t appear in front of her husband. She does appear in front of his colleagues.

Judge Martin Colin hears guardianship cases, but not those of his wife. However, he hears other cases involving her lawyers. A former Florida high court justice says it looks improper and could violate the Judicial Code of Conduct. Judge Martin Colin, a fixture at the south county courthouse, was admonished by an appeals court in 2007 for conflicts involving Savitt after he represented her in her divorce. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Judge Martin Colin hears guardianship cases, but not those of his wife. However, he hears other cases involving her lawyers. A former Florida high court justice says it looks improper and could violate the Judicial Code of Conduct. Judge Martin Colin, a fixture at the south county courthouse, was admonished by an appeals court in 2007 for conflicts involving Savitt after he represented her in her divorce. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

For families, taking on a judge’s wife is daunting, and they complain that their protests go unheeded. Savitt responds that she has never been sanctioned for any wrongdoing, and The Post did not find any such instances.

Savitt claimed in an email exchange that her detractors are “disgruntled.”

Besides how she takes retainers and fees, families take umbrage with other actions of Savitt.

The judge’s wife double-billed seniors’ accounts. In one case, she paid back the money after a family member spotted it, court records show. Another instance, cited by the clerk, is part of an ongoing investigation.

Savitt even pursues seniors’ money after their deaths, taking $30,000 in one probate case without court approval and with no apparent justification other than it was to be “held in trust.” The court required her to give most of it back.

Families say they have depleted their own savings fighting her, to no avail.

Savitt has been appointed in about 25 cases, nearly all guardianships, since she became a professional guardian in 2011. She worked without fees for some indigents, but several of her cases involve multimillion-dollar estates. Most of her cases were in front Circuit Judge David French, a friend of her husband’s.

“Colin and Savitt are a particularly good example and a very illuminating one of the conflicts of interest that exist within the guardianship system and how these conflicts lead to a miscarriage of justice and unspeakable amounts of pain, loss and frustration on behalf of families,” said Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Guardianship, the force behind guardianship reform last year in the Florida Legislature.

Professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt, married to Judge Martin Colin, says complaints from families of double billing and sending disputes to court to run up fees are ‘frivolous’ and ‘baseless.’ (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt, married to Judge Martin Colin, says complaints from families of double billing and sending disputes to court to run up fees are ‘frivolous’ and ‘baseless.’ (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Several families separately told The Post that Savitt openly cites her husband’s powerful position.

When James Vassallo, whose father Albert Vassallo Sr. is incapacitated, asked Savitt to provide receipts for expenditures he questioned, she told him to mind his own business.

“She told me, ‘In the real world, it doesn’t work that way, but I can get away with it because I’m married to a judge.’”

Savitt declined to address specific documents submitted to the court accusing her of wrongdoing in various cases.

Instead, in an email, Savitt noted that judges always approved her fees, even if she took the money beforehand. She denied selling wards’ possessions out of the judge’s home and said she did nothing wrong in withdrawing the $30,000 from one senior’s accounts.

She called such numerous concerns by families of the seniors in her guardianships “frivolous” and “baseless.”

“To the best of my knowledge, I have not been found by a court after a hearing to violate in any material way an order of the court or a rule that I was to follow,” Savitt wrote.

Savitt also accused The Post of searching for “something negative to write” and that the newspaper was not interested in reporting about her “good work.”

“It is obvious to all who are aware of what you desire to do that you do not intend to be fair, accurate and balanced,” Savitt wrote.

Savitt’s husband presided over cases involving her attorneys for years before The Post began questioning the practice. After that, between July 1 and the end of 2015, he had recused himself from 115 cases involving his wife’s lawyers.

Colin, as well as most of Savitt’s attorneys, also spoke to The Post but were limited in what they could say on the record.

High cost of family discord: Fees blossom in court

The families involved in guardianship cases are often broken. Brothers hate sisters. Fathers characterize their own daughters as evil for opposing them in court. It’s not unusual for many family members to hire lawyers themselves, accusing one another of scheming to get the riches of the incapacitated senior.

During a hearing before Judge David French at the South County Courthouse Thursday, May 21, 2015, James Vassallo represents himself in a case centering around the guardianship of his father. (Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post)

During a hearing before Judge David French at the South County Courthouse Thursday, May 21, 2015, James Vassallo represents himself in a case centering around the guardianship of his father. (Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post)

Families who spoke to The Post say Savitt exploits those rifts to pursue litigation that drives up her fees. Savitt’s attorneys, though, say it’s the family rancor that necessitates costly actions in guardianships, such as removing a sibling from a trust of a senior.

“I don’t know if they seek out cases where there is family dysfunction, but they certainly take advantage of it,” said Bruce Rosenwater, a West Palm Beach attorney who sought to remove Savitt from a guardianship.

Some family members applaud Savitt. The husband of one of her wards, Dolores Thur, said she’s been a good caretaker and his wife’s assets have been documented painstakingly. Lester Thur, 84, says he doesn’t think any criticism of Savitt is justified even though his wife’s case is under investigation by the clerk, which has questioned several items in the annual inventory, including double-billing.

In five Savitt cases The Post examined, however, family members said the judge’s wife seemed more interested in the money from the estate than caring for the incapacitated senior.

The cases involved Brooklyn plumber Vassallo, 87; Kansas schoolteacher Helen O’Grady, 83; New York accountant Robert Paul Wein, 89; Chicago-area decorator Lorraine Hilton, 94; and Gwendolyn Batson, 89, a retired school administrator who lived in Lake Worth.

O’Grady died in 2012, Batson in 2013 and Wein died Dec. 1, but the other two are still alive and under the power of Savitt.

Gwen Batson: Savitt clears house with husband’s order

In a case The Post wrote about in April, Savitt helped attorney Sheri Hazeltine — who represents Savitt in many cases — haul out belongings from Gwendolyn Batson’s Lake Worth home. Photos show they took nearly everything but the chandelier. Wearing badges with the word “guardian,” they invoked an order signed by Judge Colin, witnesses told The Post.

Gwendolyn Batson, who died at 89 in 2013, was a retired school administrator in Lake Worth. Her longtime caretaker, Skender Hoti, charged that guardian Elizabeth "Betsy" Savitt, wife of Circuit Judge Martin Colin, improperly seized property from her home, which he owned. (Contributed)

Gwendolyn Batson, who died at 89 in 2013, was a retired school administrator in Lake Worth. Her longtime caretaker, Skender Hoti, charged that guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, wife of Circuit Judge Martin Colin, improperly seized property from her home, which he owned. (Contributed)

Colin’s order appointed Batson’s brother and sister-in-law as emergency temporary guardians for Batson in late January 2012, court records show. His order would be overturned by a successor judge, but not before Savitt and Hazeltine in mid-February broke the lock on the home that Batson lived in and seized all of the belongings.

It turned out the home and much of the property seized didn’t belong to Batson but to restaurateur Skender Hoti, a Kosovo native who had taken care of Batson for decades. To get appointed emergency temporary guardian, Batson’s brother, Kenneth Davis, claimed Hoti had taken financial advantage of his sister. Colin agreed, noting in his order that immediate action needed to be taken to safeguard Batson’s belongings.

But if Hoti was taking advantage of Batson, it was a long con. Their relationship spanned decades. She traveled to Kosovo to attend his wedding and was a fixture at Hoti’s Lake Worth restaurant, Little Italy. Hoti claimed the guardianship was a means for Davis to seize his sister’s properties.

Davis used Colin’s order — employing the judge’s wife to help — to seize all the possessions in the home where his sister lived.

As Savitt and others moved items into a truck, Hoti called sheriff’s deputies who stopped them. The two argued that they had authority from Judge Colin but the deputies said the order was insufficient, that they needed what is called a writ of possession.

Lake Worth home where Gwen Batson was living after move by attorney Sheri Hazeltine and Elizabeth Savitt.

Lake Worth home where Gwen Batson was living after move by attorney Sheri Hazeltine and Elizabeth Savitt.

Hoti said he saw Savitt scream at deputies: “You can’t do that. I’m a judge’s wife. I’m Judge Colin’s wife.”

Three days after the seizure of Hoti’s property, Colin recused himself from the case.

Savitt wasn’t Batson’s guardian, yet Judge French approved paying her $1,500 of Batson’s money. The clerk questioned the expenditure more than a year after the house was cleared out and then Savitt submitted a bill, court documents show.

Hoti said even though deputies made them return his possessions, he later found valuables missing: jewelry, firearms and about $18,000 in cash.

Last summer, Hoti said he filed an additional complaint about Savitt with the sheriff’s office.

In a remarkable document, Savitt’s bill filed with the court shows she worked as a hired hand for Batson’s brother to spirit Batson to Alabama.

The bill indicates Savitt spied on Hoti at the restaurant he owns to make sure she could operate unencumbered and take possession of valuables from the Batson residence.

In the end, the restaurateur fought the brother and persevered, getting a judge to order Batson back to Florida.

Savitt’s home: $308,000 staves off auction

In 2011, just before the Batson case, Savitt became a registered professional guardian. Savitt and Colin’s financial picture — replete with foreclosures, debt and liens — started to improve.

Savitt’s path from tennis professional to professional guardian didn’t require much heavy lifting. She completed 40 hours of training, put up a $50,000 bond for her firm Savitt Guardians and submitted to credit and criminal background checks.

The Department of Elder Affairs registered her as a professional guardian in 2011 despite a pending foreclosure on a home she owns in Delray Beach.

Photo of Elizabeth Savitt's home in Delray Beach that was the subject of a lengthy foreclosure proceeding until she paid of $308,000 home equity loan. At least one family of the senior citizens who are under her as a professional guardian wants to know where she got the money.

Photo of Elizabeth Savitt’s home in Delray Beach that was the subject of a lengthy foreclosure proceeding until she paid of $308,000 home equity loan. At least one family of the senior citizens who are under her as a professional guardian wants to know where she got the money.

Savitt passed the credit check after telling the department that she was in a dispute with her lender and wasn’t past due because of “neglect or oversight.” It wasn’t until November 2014 that her dispute was settled with a judgment of foreclosure, sending the house to the auction block.

Six days before the home was to be auctioned off in March, she came up with $308,000 to satisfy a delinquent home equity loan, court records show. She didn’t make payments for several years on the $250,000 loan and rented out the home for a portion of that period.

Photo of Judge Martin Colin's home in Atlantis that was the subject of foreclosure actions indicative of the judge's financial troubles.Address is 501 N. Country Club Drive. Colin’s Atlantis home: He was sued for foreclosure in 2009 but told The Post it was a mortgage modification.

Photo of Judge Martin Colin’s home in Atlantis that was the subject of foreclosure actions indicative of the judge’s financial troubles.Address is 501 N. Country Club Drive. Colin’s Atlantis home: He was sued for foreclosure in 2009 but told The Post it was a mortgage modification.

Vassallo found the timing of the $308,000 payment suspicious. “I want to know if any of my father’s money went to her foreclosure case,” he said. When he told Judge French his concerns, a June 15 hearing was abruptly ended.

Despite the delinquencies, Savitt said she paid off the home equity loan on her property before the note was due. “I do not know how many professional guardians are debt free as I am,” she said.

Most of Savitt’s cases are in front of Judge French. Two of French’s ex-wives have described Colin and French as good friends who once planned a vacation together. The two judges have lunch together frequently in Delray Beach.

Families say they are also frustrated by the lack of transparency in the guardianship cases of their loved ones. It’s not unusual for key documents regarding the guardian’s activities to be sealed.

The Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller’s Office audits the guardians’ annual accounting of the seniors’ assets and the guardianship plan. It also investigated complaints, but the office’s investigations and findings are confidential under state law. Records show that at least four of Savitt’s cases have been investigated by the clerk’s inspector general, but any findings remain confidential.

Helen O’Grady: Lawyer aghast as Savitt withdraws $30,000

$30,000

Retired teacher Helen O'Grady, who died at 83 in 2012 in Boynton Beach, was a senior "ward" of professional guardian Elizabeth "Betsy" Savitt, wife of Circuit Judge Martin Colin.

Helen O’Grady, a former Kansas schoolteacher, invested her money well, until court-appointed guardian Becky Savitt, wife of Circuit Court Judge Colin, got her hands on Ms. O’Grady’s portfolio.

Thomas Mayes of Boynton Beach sought legal advice in a dispute with his two brothers over his mother’s health care and finances. His attorney, Clifford Hark of Boca Raton, recommended Savitt as a guardian for his mother, Helen O’Grady.

Even with Savitt as guardian, it was Mayes who made his mother’s doctor’s appointments, managed her transportation, readied her house for sale — all tasks he thought Savitt should have handled.

After Mayes’ mother died, Savitt recommended that the family urge the court to appoint her curator of the estate, telling them it would save money for her to temporarily manage it until the family disputes were settled.

Once that happened and Mayes became personal representative of the estate, he said he could not get Savitt to pony up details of his mother’s financial picture and relinquish control.

Before Mayes could get a grip on his mother’s finances, Savitt starting withdrawing money, court pleadings show.

She wrote herself a check for $1,725 and another for $1,745 to Hazeltine for fees before a judge approved it, according to a pleading filed by attorneys. Hazeltine said Savitt obtained an order allowing her to write the checks, but the order Hazeltine referenced said nothing about fees, court documents show.

Then Savitt took without proper court approval $30,000 to be “held in trust” by her and Hazeltine.

“This action is so beyond the realm of reasonable conduct that I can hardly express myself right now,” Mayes’ attorney, Christopher Salivar, said in a series of emails to Hazeltine.

Mayes’ lawyers, Andrew M. Schwartz and Salivar, told the court that Savitt actions amounted to the unlawful taking of O’Grady’s property.

“The foregoing actions in and of themselves fall within the textbook legal definition of conversion.”

Mayes agreed. “To me, I thought it was a criminal act. They were intentionally stealing it. This is how they make their money.”

Judge Edward Garrison ordered Savitt and Hazeltine to return all but about $2,600 of the $30,000.

Once Helen O’Grady’s family settled their battles over their inheritance, O’Grady’s son said he couldn’t get Savitt to turn over management of the money. (Contributed)

Once Helen O’Grady’s family settled their battles over their inheritance, O’Grady’s son said he couldn’t get Savitt to turn over management of the money. (Contributed)

But that was not all. After the $30,000 withdrawals, the two asked for flat fees of $55,000 each, citing a state law that entitles personal representatives to 3 percent of the estate. Personal representatives, also known as executors, administer and close out the estate. Savitt was simply the temporary curator of the estate — not the personal representative.

Savitt and her attorneys would not relent on their claims for fees. Mayes said he aimed to fight them in court, but settled after his wife got ill, liquidating his mother’s long-held Philip Morris stock to pay them.

Grady’s family estimates attorney fees and court costs from their own pockets of around $150,000. “Is this fair? Is this reasonable?” Mayes’ sister, Kathleen Osterbuhr wrote to the court in objecting to Hark’s fee. The attorney who represented Mayes and recommended Savitt collected more than $35,000.

“My mother Helen O’Grady did not benefit from having a court-appointed guardian. … My mother was a teacher who raised five children on a salary that was less than what Mr. Hark has already been paid.”

Mayes estimates that fees for Savitt and her attorneys — Hazeltine and Ellen Morris — amounted to more than $70,000.

“They just kept draining the estate,” Mayes said. “And the judges kept rubber-stamping all of this. They are not helping the elderly; they are helping themselves.

Savitt denied any wrongdoing. “Of course, I did not convert $30,000 and that would be a lie to report that I did.”

Lorraine Hilton: Son accused of abuse gets money from Savitt

Savitt

New guardian: Lorraine Hilton and her grandson Max, who has taken over her care. Her son Robert, who Savitt paid, was accused of abusing her. (Contributed)

New guardian: Lorraine Hilton and her grandson Max, who has taken over her care. Her son Robert, who Savitt paid, was accused of abusing her. (Contributed)

In the case of retired decorator Lorraine Hilton, Savitt’s actions benefited Hilton’s son Robert, who was accused of physically abusing and stealing from his mother, according to court documents. Savitt’s attorney Hazeltine persuaded Hilton herself — who had advancing dementia — to agree to a guardianship.

Her other son, James Hilton, learned in March 2013 that Savitt had taken control of his mother’s assets, though Lorraine Hilton had a living trust established in 2007. Lorraine Hilton in a declaration for a preneed guardian explicitly stated that she didn’t want her son Robert taking care of her.

James Hilton sought to intervene as an emergency guardian. He also wanted a restraining order against his brother, Robert. James Hilton cited incidents such as an “accident” in which Lorraine Hilton broke her hip and Robert left her at the hospital and left the state, court documents say.

“I am truly alarmed that a judicial process has been put in place there without me having been duly contacted,” wrote James Hilton, who died in February.

Robert Hilton declined to comment. Billing documents in the case indicate his many demands on Savitt, such as for $20,000 of his mother’s money to buy a warehouse.

Billings from Savitt and Hazeltine memorialize phone messages from Robert Hilton left for Savitt in which his mother can be heard weeping in the background. On another, she called when all of sudden Lorraine Hilton let out “a blood-curdling scream and cuts off.”

Savitt resigned after James Hilton came forward. James Hilton objected to Savitt’s final accounting, accusing her of funneling money to Robert Hilton.

The pleading alleges:

  • Savitt failed to secure a bank account, off of which Robert Hilton wrote two checks totaling $49,685 for real estate. The deeds indicate he’s the sole owner. The pleading alleges that Lorraine Hilton appears to have signed the checks.
  • Savitt paid Robert Hilton $2,500 without explanation or receipt. She also paid $5,300 for property taxes on two homes owned by Robert Hilton.
  • Savitt took as much as a $2,000 retainer fee without prior court permission.
  • A Wells Fargo bank statement shows Savitt accessed Hilton’s account to make two separate deposits and to write two checks — all four in the amount of $3,189.50 — without explanation.

“The system sometimes ends up harming the people it’s supposed to protect,” said Palm Beach Gardens attorney Thomas Dougherty, who filed the objection on behalf of James Hilton.

Judge French took no action on the objection against Savitt.

Savitt also took various amounts from the bank accounts of seniors without court approval in three of the guardianship cases The Post examined.

For example, at an August hearing before Circuit Judge Krista Marx (pictured), Savitt acknowledged she took about $17,000 for her fees and a retainer from Robert Wein’s accounts without prior court permission. Judge Marx approved the payments, saying Savitt simply was “asking for forgiveness instead of permission.” (Gary Coronado/Palm Beach Post)

At an August hearing before Circuit Judge Krista Marx (pictured), Savitt acknowledged she took about $17,000 for her fees and a retainer from Robert Wein’s accounts without prior court permission. Judge Marx approved the payments, saying Savitt simply was “asking for forgiveness instead of permission.” (Gary Coronado/Palm Beach Post)

For example, at an August hearing before Circuit Judge Krista Marx, Savitt acknowledged she took about $17,000 for her fees and a retainer from Robert Wein’s accounts without prior court permission. Judge Marx approved the payments, saying Savitt simply was “asking for forgiveness instead of permission.”

When asked about this, again Savitt pointed out that the judge approved her actions.

Anthony Palmieri — senior internal auditor of guardianship cases for the clerk — said a guardian taking a retainer or other money from a senior without prior court approval “would not be consistent” with any of the 800 other cases he’s reviewed.

“From an auditor’s perspective, it is a concern,” he said.

Is it legal?

Florida law says that “when fees for a guardian or an attorney are submitted to the court for determination,” several factors determine whether they are reasonable. It goes on to list the factors.

Ellen Morris, one of Savitt’s attorneys, cited sub-sections of the guardianship law in saying that her client is allowed to take money without court approval. “You will not find anything that says guardians need approval to pay their fee,” Morris told The Post in an email exchange. Morris serves as administrative chair on the executive committee of the Elder Law Section of The Florida Bar, which sets ethical standards for the lawyers who practice in the area.

Mini-estate sale at judge’s house

But it’s not just bank accounts, but property and possessions of these elderly wards that are controlled by professional guardians. Savitt’s actions have been questioned in this regard, as well.

In the Robert Wein guardianship, attorney Rosenwater expressed concern to Judge Marx in August that the judge’s wife may have sold some of Wein’s belongings at the December garage sale.

A listing on Craigslist in late December under “mini estate sale (Atlantis FL)” and listing the judge’s address, stated: “Cleared out a home and selling all I could find. I got new quality items.” For sale: jewelry, fine china, computer, printer, artwork and various household items.

When asked about the garage sale by The Post, Savitt rolled her eyes. When it was brought up in court during a hearing in the Wein case, she appeared irritated. Savitt denies any item of a ward was sold at the garage sale.

“The guardian is getting money, the guardian’s attorney is getting money, and interested parties come into the case. Everyone is getting paid and it’s all coming from the ward’s money,” Rosenwater said.

Robert Wein: Costly try at annulling marriage

The case of Robert Wein illustrates the often savage nature of guardianship cases. Family members say Savitt splits families into camps by pursuing what is called “staged litigation,” settling disputes in court to run up fees.

On one side is Daniel Wein, Robert’s brother.

The other side is Robert’s wife, Vita, and Jodi Rich, Daniel’s estranged daughter.

Before Robert Wein died, Savitt tried to annul his marriage to Vita Wein, 82, whom he wed in 1958. Vita says Savitt is a ‘despicable woman,” but Robert’s brother Daniel says Savitt has always been ‘aboveboard.’

Before Robert Wein died, Savitt tried to annul his marriage to Vita Wein, 82, whom he wed in 1958. Vita says Savitt is a ‘despicable woman,” but Robert’s brother Daniel says Savitt has always been ‘aboveboard.’

Rich said all Savitt has done as guardian is “bill, bill, bill” and criticized her lack of success in tracking down $700,000 in promissory notes owed to her late uncle, who died Dec. 1. Robert Wein was worth up to $3 million, according to court documents.

Though married in 1958, the couple renewed their vows in 2014 and obtained a Florida marriage license. Daniel Wein believed his brother divorced Vita, 82, and wasn’t competent enough to remarry. So for the last months of Robert Wein’s life, Savitt — as his guardian — focused on undoing the union of this elderly couple in a fight over what would be a lucrative estate.

Vita, as a spouse, can claim one-third of Wein’s estate. Daniel claims Vita Wein and Jodi Rich are interested only in that money.

“She has been guardian for 12 months and hasn’t done anything except try to dissolve the marriage of these two elderly people who had been married for 58 years,” said Rich before Wein’s death. “So there are two marriage licenses. Who cares? What’s the difference? They wanted to end their life together.”

Emails show Savitt discussing with Daniel Wein trying to get the authority to annul Robert’s marriage, contending he and Vita were divorced and that she tricked him into remarrying in 2014. Savitt also was trying before Robert’s death to amend the trust to give Daniel $150,000.

“Daniel and Savitt, they are in bed together,” Rich said. “We have a lot of evidence.”

Litigation on the marriage issue resulted in an expensive 2½ hour court hearing and depositions before the matter was dropped unceremoniously by Savitt at a hearing in August.

“Savitt is the culprit here. She is the one who caused all the problems,” Rich said. “She shouldn’t be a guardian.” Daniel Wein, though, praised Savitt for protecting his brother’s assets.

“I don’t know how she handles her other cases; I know with this, particularly with my brother, they have been aboveboard,” he said.

Vita Wein, though, has pressed Savitt to explain her actions.

In a June 10 deposition and in his motion for Savitt’s removal, Vita’s attorney at the time, Rosenwater, repeatedly tried to get the judge’s wife to say why she hadn’t filed one invoice in the case in eight months but took $17,000 without prior court approval.When Savitt refused to answer a question about whether she had any objections to a critical report to the court on Wein, Rosenwater was exasperated. “She can’t answer. It’s amazing,” he said.

“The guardian has used her fiduciary relationship with the ward for her own financial gain, as well as her attorney,” Rosenwater wrote in another pleading. “It is clear the guardian has breached her duties.” Rosenwater no longer represents Vita Wein, and Robert Wein died before a motion to remove Savitt as guardian was ruled on. A motion for sanctions against her remains unresolved.

Vita Wein, in an interview at her nursing home before her husband died, said Savitt saw her as a threat to the amount of money she can siphon off her husband’s assets. She said her husband, who was struggling mightily with dementia, just wanted to be happy in his waning years.

“She is a despicable person. She is very two-faced,” Vita Wein said from Colony Club in Sunrise. Her husband, oblivious to the complex details driving her anger, sat down next to her on the love seat. He died less than two weeks later.

Savitt said annulling the Weins’ 2014 marriage was well within the propriety of the court, but she wouldn’t answer why the legal action was necessary for the ward at the end of his life when the 1958 union was still valid.

Albert Vassallo Sr.: From friend to enemy, Savitt cites ‘bad blood’

James Vassallo holds a photo of his parents, Albert Vassallo Sr. and Geraldine Mickey Vassallo. (John Pacenti/The Palm Beach Post)

James Vassallo holds a photo of his parents, Albert Vassallo Sr. and Geraldine Mickey Vassallo, in November 2015. His father was a senior “ward” of Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, wife of Circuit Judge Martin Colin. (John Pacenti/The Palm Beach Post)

James Vassallo can’t stop beating himself up. He blames himself for allowing Savitt to take control of his father’s finances. As result, he has a list of questions about Savitt’s actions that he says remains unanswered to his satisfaction.

Like in the O’Grady case, Vassallo sought the advice of Hark when he learned last year that his brother and sister had transferred $180,000 from the accounts of his father. And like in O’Grady, Hark steered him to Savitt, saying she would protect the assets of Albert Vassallo Sr., who was suffering from early stages of dementia.

Vassallo, who moved from Brooklyn to live next door and care for his father at Century Village in Deerfield Beach, says Savitt instead aligned with his sister who had taken $140,000 and other assets, according to demand letters.

Savitt successfully petitioned Judge French to remove Vassallo as a trustee to his father’s estate, which would have allowed him to retain some administrative control. Savitt claimed Vasallo wasn’t getting along with the very siblings, whose actions prompted him to seek the guardianship in the first place.

“If I knew her husband was a judge, I never would have went with her because whatever I said to her meant nothing. She can do whatever she wants because she has the court’s backing and that is exactly what is happening now,” said Vassallo.

In a voicemail that Vassallo still has, Savitt had assured him attorneys were working to remove his brother and sister but there was no reason to remove him because “you didn’t do anything wrong.” She did, however, suggest paying Hark more money to defend him just in case.

Vassallo said Savitt made her move to remove him from his father’s trust after he repeatedly questioned her billing practices. He estimates that Savitt and her attorneys collected $40,000 to get him off the trust. His father’s savings have been depleted by more than $200,000 in about year, he said.

Albert Vassallo Sr. in November 2015. He was a ward of professional guardian Elizabeth "Betsy" Savitt, wife of Circuit Judge Martin Colin. (John Pacenti/The Palm Beach Post)

Albert Vassallo Sr. in November 2015. He was a ward of professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, wife of Circuit Judge Martin Colin. (John Pacenti/The Palm Beach Post)

Savitt said, “To accomplish getting the relief favorable to the Ward, and because of bad blood and conflicts between all three children of the Ward, it was agreed by the lawyers that I should be the sole trustee, not because of anything wrong James did.”

Vassallo produced email and bank statements showing how Savitt doubled-billed his father’s accounts by about $7,300 and did not pay it back until he confronted her with the bank account statements. “She never would have given that back on her own,” Vassallo said. The $7,300 plus a $3,000 retainer fee came before a judge approved them and even before she submitted a petition to the court for that money.

To address the $180,000, a deal was struck in mediation, allowing James’ brother and sister to pay back half the money over 15 years and keep the rest.

Vassallo never signed the agreement and vehemently opposed it.

After The Post asked Savitt about $10,000 in U.S. savings bonds, James Vassallo said she told him the bonds had been located and provided her accounting of expenses.

Still missing is reimbursement for his dad’s Hyundai and assets from a savings account and a safety deposit box, Vassallo said. “My father said it was over $100,000 in there.”

But the knife in James Vassallo’s heart came when Savitt and Judge French allowed his father to be permanently placed with his sister, Susan Mast. Savitt is paying the sister $2,400 a month for the father’s care under a settlement agreement that bears the guardian’s signature. Little of the money initially taken has been returned.

Albert Jr. says his father consented in court to remain with his sister, but James Vassallo says the judge never should have asked his incapacitated father if he wanted to live with Mast considering the money owed.

Mast cursed at a reporter when asked about the case and threatened legal action. Her brother, Albert Jr., said the money he got from his father was a gift to help him pay his medical bills.

Vassallo has also questioned Judge French in court about whether any money from the bank accounts of Savitt’s wards went to satisfy the foreclosure judgment on her Delray Beach home. He also objected at a hearing to attorney John Pankauski’sbill — which at the time was for $18,000 and heavily redacted.

Attorney John Pankauski makes arguments before Judge David French at the South County Courthouse Thursday, May 21, 2015, during a hearing surrounding the guardianship of James Vassallo's father. (Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post)

Trust attorney John Pankauski, who has represented Savitt, was forced to defend himself in a divorce case that Judge Colin presided over from accusations that he was part of a strategy to get Colin recused. (Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post)

“I asked the judge, ‘What are you going to do, rubber stamp everything?’ and French told me that Pankauski should have charged my dad $40,000,” Vassallo said.

Now Vassallo has hired attorney Dougherty, hoping he can work the same magic he did for James Hilton by detailing questionable actions by Savitt for the court. Vassallo hopes this would force her to resign or have a court remove her.

Albert Vassallo Sr. remains alert and talkative. Interviewed at a Deerfield Beach senior center, he said he doesn’t trust Savitt. “She doesn’t show me any reports. At least, show me where the money is going,” he said.

James Vassallo can’t sleep at night, poring over bills and other documents, thinking what he could have done differently. His apartment is piled high with stacks of court papers.

“I was the one who brought this woman into my father’s life,” he said. “And what is she doing? She is taking the money that these seniors worked so hard for, set aside for their children, for their grandchildren.”

Data editor Mike Stucka, researcher Melanie Mena and staff writer Holly Baltz contributed to this story. Web page production by Kristyn Wellesley and Gurman Bhatia.

To read this complete article online at the Palm Beach Post website, click here.