Facing questioning, guardian Savitt resigns from controversial case

When it came to deceased senior Frances Berkowitz, professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt appeared ready to fight until the bitter end despite efforts to remove her from her position.

But last week she was ready to not only resign as guardian for the late Berkowitz, but as personal representative of the estate. However, the heirs to Berkowitz’s depleted estate wouldn’t let her completely off a hook at a court on Wednesday.

>> $400,000 allegedly missing in case of professional guardian Savitt

Savitt’s decision came after she sidestepped a scheduled deposition on May 23  to answer questions at the behest of a New York family who the court has determined is the rightful heir to Berkowitz’s estate. Savitt sought a protective order to keep from answering questions.

Elizabeth Savitt appears at a court hearing to discuss attorney fees in, August 2015. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

And there are plenty of questions for Savitt.

The former attorneys for Berkowitz tried to remove Savitt, saying they were concerned as much as $400,000 was missing from the guardianship. Savitt has denied that any money is missing.

They also told the court that Savitt cost Berkowitz hundreds of thousands of dollars by failing to properly litigate against a caregiver and other parties — including a bank and a Miami lawyer — who took $1.2 million from the senior under false pretenses, court documents allege.

>> RELATED: Guardianships: A Broken Trust

However, Circuit Judge Howard Coates last year found that the attorneys lacked standing to challenge anything that happened in the guardianship once Savitt was appointed.

Savitt used Berkowitz’s money to sue the former lawyers — Webb Millsaps and Donna Solomon Greenspan — to recoup fees that Savitt claims were excessive.  Still pending is a defamation lawsuit filed by Millsaps and Solomon against one of Savitt’s attorneys, as well as an appeal of Coates’ decisions.

At a May 24 court hearing, the lawyer representing Berkowitz’s heirs, the Kerner family, accepted Savitt’s resignation as a personal representative of the estate but said he wouldn’t let her out of her fiduciary duty as a guardian of Berkowitz’s property just yet.

Attorney John Carter also wouldn’t agree to allow Savitt to forgo the final guardianship accounting of her activity in the Berkowitz case. Savitt’s attorney said there is no money left, but Carter said he has seen no such proof that is the case.

“I want to make sure I don’t waive any rights the Berkowitz heirs have to recoup expenses and fees and wasting of assets intentionally or otherwise caused by Ms. Savitt’s professional guardianship,” said Carter.

The Kerner family has sought to remove Savitt as personal representative since they learned in January of Berkowitz’s death on Dec. 31. The Kerners have asserted in court that Savitt misrepresented to the court that there were no rightful heirs to serve as personal representative even though she knew there were family members who could serve in that capacity.

A Savitt attorney has repeatedly pointed out that the main heir to Berkowitz’s estate is facing murder charges for killing the late senior’s sister and has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.  Another Kerner family member has stepped up to replace Savitt as personal representative, however.

With the deposition pending, Savitt’s attorney filed a motion for a protective order to keep her from answering questions about her activity in the Berkowitz case, saying the professional guardian is entitled to be protected from “annoyance, embarrassment, oppression and undue burden.”

Berkowitz is just one of Savitt’s guardianships in turmoil as families have repeatedly complained about her. Foremost among the complaints was that Savitt took tens of thousands of dollars in fees prior to judicial approval.

Savitt’s actions were reported in The Palm Beach Post’s series, Guardianship: A Broken Trust. She points out that she has never been removed from a guardianship or sanctioned by a judge.

After the first stories ran, her husband, Martin Colin, announced his retirement as a circuit judge.  Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath then handed down guardianship reforms, many of which addressed family’s complaints about Savitt.

Judge’s wife Elizabeth Savitt under investigation by new state guardianship office

Elizabeth Savitt, the former judge’s wife and professional guardian who has been the subject of numerous of complaints from families of incapacitated seniors, is being investigated by the state’s new Office of Personal and Professional Guardianship.

The agency is the state’s new watchdog for professional guardians and now has the power under rules adopted this legislative session to discipline them. If the investigation turns up wrongdoing, the penalty can include stripping Savitt of her registration with the state, which could stop her from serving as guardian.

The investigation remains confidential. It is unknown whether it emanates from one or multiple complaints. It could have been filed by a senior in guardianship, a relative or loved one. It could even have emanated from a member of the public or judiciary.

One complaint was filed by the attorney for Daniel Schmidt, the former Boca Raton resident who took care of one of Savitt’s wards, Carla Simmonds, a stroke victim.

Savitt resigned from the case after complaints surfaced when she tried to get a court to allow her 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 agency will “have Elizabeth Savitt eradicated from guardianship and to have criminal charges filed against her, her husband and her lawyers.”

Savitt – a tennis instructor by trade 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 them as criticism mounted.

The Palm Beach Post reported on numerous complaints from families about Savitt in its series Guardianship: A Broken Trust in January 2016. More complaints have surfaced since then.

Savitt’s husband, former Circuit Judge Martin Colin, retired last year after the series spelled out his conflict of interest because of his wife’s work as a guardian. Colin and Savitt’s finances were replete with foreclosures, liens, and unpaid debts before she became a guardian in 2011.

The Palm Beach Post is working on a more in-depth piece on the Savitt investigation by the new guardianship office that will run in the print and web editions on Saturday.

 

 

Supreme Court chief justice tackles senior guardianship as complaints mount

The complaints emanate from all over the state and really the nation: Seniors and others found incapacitated by the courts too often are treated like piggy banks by professional guardians who put their fees above the needs of the ward.

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Concerns about seniors in guardianships have sparked protests outside of courthouses in Palm Beach County.
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Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga on Monday announced members of a task force that will focus on guardianship issues facing Florida’s courts.

He said few decisions are more challenging to a judge than removing a person’s rights because they are no longer capable of making decisions independently.

The Palm Beach Post, LaBarga’s hometown newspaper, has reported extensively on guardianship, particularly how one judge and his wife benefited from it in Guardianships: A Broken Trust. The stories resulted in an overhaul of the system in Palm Beach County courts. Circuit Judge Martin Colin announced his retirement after the stories.

However, Colin’s wife, Elizabeth Savitt, continues to serve as a professional guardian despite increasing complaints by loved ones of her incapacitated wards. She has taken tens of thousands of dollars from seniors’s bank accounts prior to judicial approval, The Post found.

Savitt is often defended by Boca Raton attorney Ellen Morris, who recently sent a letter to the Department of Elder Affairs opposing proposed rules to regulate professional guardians. The six-page letter outlines a series of complaints and says the “rule proposals can not be implemented without extensive challenge and litigation.”

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Glenda Martinez Smith has won repeated appeals against the guardian appointed for her husband, J. Alan Smith. She has a case pending in front of the Florida Supreme Court on the annulment of her marriage.

Morris is the chair of the Elder Law Section of the Florida Bar and has argued — in the letter and repeatedly on behalf of Savitt — that professional guardians can take fees from a senior’s life savings before a judge approves them.

The Post spoke to numerous guardianship attorneys and none reads state statute as allowing guardians to take fees prior to  judicial approval.

Morris did not respond to an e-mail inquiry about her letter.

In a news release, Labarga, who lives in Welllington, said he created the work group because guardianship  caseloads are increasing in number and complexity.

“As Florida grows and ages, we can expect more and more cases dealing with guardianship issues to come into our courts,” Labarga said.

Individuals found incapacitated by the court are appointed a guardian. If a family member is not available, often a professional guardian steps in with complete control of the senior’s finances, medical decisions and housing.

In Florida and across the nation, professional guardians have been found to act in their own interests and not those of the incapacitated ward. Families of seniors have found themselves unable to battle professional guardians, who often employ legions of attorneys paid for by the incapacitated senior.

Florida’s guardianship system assists and protects individuals judged by a court to be unable to make decisions for themselves. When appointed by the court, guardians can make decisions about an individual’s care, finances or property on their behalf.

Elizabeth Savitt appears at a hearing with Attorney Sheri Hazeltine to discuss attorney fees for Albert Bach on Thursday, August 20, 2015 at the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach. Elizabeth Savitt is the wife of Judge Martin Colin and also a professional guardian. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)
Elizabeth Savitt appears at a guardianship hearing.  (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

The Guardianship Workgroup established under the Court’s Judicial Management Council, will advise the chief justice and the Supreme Court on long-range issues confronting Florida’s judiciary.

Highlands County Circuit Judge Olin Shinholser, a member of the JMC, will serve as chair. He said there is too often conflict between the needs and desires of the ward — often a senior battling dementia — and the guardian, caregivers and even the family.

“Comments and complaints from various stakeholders are indicative that we need to take a closer look at whether the rules and procedures in place accomplish the balance needed,” he said.

State lawmakers passed laws in the last two legislative sessions to increase the state’s regulation and oversight of guardians.

Judge Martin Colin presides over a hearing on Thursday, August 20, 2015 at the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach. Judge Colin's wife Elizabeth Savitt, who is a professional guardian, was simultaneously participating in a hearing in another courtroom with Attorney Sheri Hazeltine. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)
Judge Martin Colin announced his retirement after The Palm Beach Post reported on vast conflict of interest regarding adult guardianship. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

“This is an appropriate time to re-evaluate our system and determine if the courts are doing everything possible to meet the needs of everyone involved,” Labarga said. “It’s imperative we stay proactive in this area and provide real solutions to emerging issues.”

The work group will tackle a number of guardianship issues, including restoration of capacity for the senior or person put in a guardianship. Costs — which usually mean fees for the guardian and at least one lawyer — will also be addressed.

An interim report is due to the Court by October 2017 and a final report is due to the Court by September 2018.

Besides Shinholser, other members of the work group include:

  • Judge Robert Lee, Broward County, Fort Lauderdale
  • Judge Michelle Morley, 5th Circuit, Bushnell
  • Judge Peter Dearing, 4th Circuit, Jacksonville
  • Judge Maria Korvick, 11th Circuit, Miami
  • Jason Nelson, Office of Public and Professional Guardians, Florida Department of Elder Affairs, Tallahassee
  • Laird Lile, Lile & Hayes, PLLC, Naples
  • Andrew Sasso, Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen, Clearwater
  • Karen Campbell,  North Florida Office of Public Guardian, Tallahassee
  • Vicki Alkire,  Viable Alternatives, Inc., Sarasota

“Further evaluating guardianship practices supports the branch’s goal of ensuring that court procedures and operations are easily understandable and user-friendly and supports our mission to protect rights and liberties of all,” Shinholser said.