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.

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.

 

Florida Supreme Court accepts guardianship case on marriage annulment

The Florida Supreme Court has officially accepted jurisdiction of Palm Beach County case on whether a court-appointed guardian can seek to annul a marriage of a senior citizen found to be incapacitated.

The annulment issue has surfaced recently in at least two guardianship cases in Palm Beach County – both involving elder law and special needs attorney Ellen Morris of Boca Raton.

 

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J. Alan Smith and Glenda Martinez Smith have fought to reverse the annulment of their 2011 marriage at the behest of a professional guardian. The case will be heard by the Florida Supreme Court.

Morris represented guardian John Cramer in the case in question involving 85-year-old J. Alan Smith. She also represented Elizabeth Savitt in the case involving senior Robert Paul Wein where she sought authority from the court to annul a 1959 marriage. Wein died before the issue was settled.

Concerns about Florida professional guardians in recent yearshave result in the state Legislature passing the state’s first regulatory authority over the industry that cares for adults and seniors found to be incapacitated by illness, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

 

Robert and Vita Wein. Vita Wein says professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt has worked to break up the couple, who were married in 1958..
The late Robert  Wein with his and wife Vita last year. The couple fought to keep their 1958 marriage from being annulled by professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt.

The Smith case has already set precedent when the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that a senior’s advance directive naming a health care surrogate  must be followed by the court and not usurped by the appointed professional guardian.

Currently, Smith is being cared for by the woman he married, Glenda Martinez Smith. She is now fighting to reverse the decision by Circuit Judge David French to annul the marriage at behest of the guardian.

The 4th DCA in July certified a question of great public importance on whether incapacitated individuals can retain the rights to marry. The Supreme Court on Aug. 25 accepted the case and ordered attorneys to submit briefs by next week.

An annulment can be a fee generator for  guardians and the attorneys who represents them. The Post reported in its series Guardianship: A Broken Trust how annulment proceedings initiated by a guardian can drain the estate of the senior and cost loved ones tens of thousands of dollars in court fees fighting it.

Vita Wein told The Palm Beach Post that Savitt – who is married to Circuit Judge Martin Colin – aimed not only to generate fees but to cut her out of any of her husband’s inheritance and social security money in order to benefit relatives of her husband.

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)
Professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt  (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Showdown over Judge Colin’s grandson has surprise witness

The showdown between the family of beleaguered Circuit Judge Martin Colin and the woman who gave birth to his grandson is slated for this Friday morning.

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Kacie Herrick

Colin, his wife Elizabeth Savitt and ubiquitous courthouse psychologist Stephen Alexander — a surprise witness — are scheduled to testify in what could be an all-day affair at the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach.

Among the myriad of issues, is a motion made by Matthew Colin — son of the judge and father of the 1-year-old child — to jail mother Kacie Herrick.

Her crime? She took her son to a pediatrician near her home in Coral Springs rather than near the judge’s residence in Atlantis.

Matthew Colin, the basketball coach at Wellington High School, lives with his father and Savitt.

Judge Colin and Savitt  play a primary role in caring for the child, often picking up the child from Herrick and returning him to her, according to pleadings.

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Palm Beach Circuit Judge Martin Colin

Colin and Savitt were the subject of The Palm Beach Post’s series, Guardianship: A Broken Trust that outlined vast conflict of interest for the judge and numerous complaints from families about Savitt in her guardianships. Savitt operated in the very division where her husband sat on the bench.

In the wake of the series, Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath transferred Colin out of the Probate & Guardianship Division and to the central courthouse. His wife’s cases were also moved to the North County Courthouse in an effort to mitigate the appearance of favoritism.

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Professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt. She is married to Circuit Judge Martin Colin.

Savitt still works as professional guardian where accusations from families are still are rampant.

In the meantime, the judicial power couple are involved in Matthew Colin’s ongoing disputes with Herrick over the care of their child. Herrick’s attorneys — Tracy Belinda Newmark and Natalie S. Kay — say it is a rarity for the child to sleep in the same bed two nights in a row.

Her attorneys hope that Herrick can get approval of a proposed parenting plan that will allow her to move out of Florida to Maine where her parents live and away from Judge Colin’s family.

The case is being heard by Judge Alfred Horowitz of Broward County after Herrick said she could not get a fair hearing in front of one of Judge Colin’s colleagues in Palm Beach County.

Her motion finally succeeded in the wake of Palm Beach Post’s investigation that found numerous complaints by families against Savitt as a guardian died a quick death in front of Colin’s colleagues on the Palm Beach Circuit bench.

Another issue to bubble up in the paternity case is Matthew Colin’s surprise witness of Dr. Stephen Alexander, a psychologist who specializes in providing expert witness testimony to defense parties in multitude of cases. He is also married to one of Judge Colin’s colleagues: Circuit Judge Karen Miller.

Herrick’s attorneys said in a motion to strike Alexander from the proceeding that Matthew Colin attempted to disguise the psychologist by listing him as a lay witness. Alexander has never treated Herrick and appears to have no bearing on the parental issues, the mother’s attorneys say.

“Father has not even provided the most general information regarding the subject area about which the expert witness intends to testify,” the motion states.

Judge’s wife wanted fees paid from stroke victim’s trust, IRA

Carla Simmonds, a Delray Beach nursing administrator and mother of two, decided two years ago to get in shape by attending a “boot camp workout.”

But after a vigorous session in February 2014, Simmonds suffered a life-shattering stroke caused by a leak in her carotid artery that triggered a massive blood clot in her frontal lobe. Doctors were forced to temporarily remove half of the 47-year-old’s skull to contain swelling so her brain did not dislodge from her spinal cord.

Simmonds was left unable to speak and with the mental capacity of a 4-year-old. All she could do was cry. Years of recovery awaited.

Daniel Schmidt, a former boyfriend and retired Merrill Lynch financial planner from Boca Raton, stepped up, taking her into his home and guiding her on a remarkable recovery.

But the court system also ended up putting the stroke victim in the hands of professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, the wife of embattled Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin.

The judicial power couple were the subject of a series of reforms handed down this year by the chief judge after The Palm Beach Post’s series, Guardianships: A Broken Trust. The newspaper’s investigation showed how Savitt took tens ofthousands of dollars in feeswithout prior court permission from seniors in her guardianships and compiled a litany of complaints from families of her wards.

All of Savitt’s guardianship cases were moved to the north county courthouse to avoid any appearance of favoritism toward the judge’s wife.

Savitt, though, is still drawing complaints about her fees in the handful of guardianship cases she has left. When families ask her to resign, she has demanded fees upfront for her and her attorney Ellen Morris. The judge’s wife insists they also agree not to sue or pursue litigation against her.

In the Simmonds case, Savitt, a former tennis pro, attempted to draw fees from the stroke victim’s $640,000 trust, which wasn’t part of the guardianship money, and then wanted to drain her $46,000 IRA to pay fees for about one-quarter of its worth.

But Schmidt stood in Savitt’s way. Simmonds before her stroke had given him her power of attorney.

To read the whole story on The Post’s website, click here.