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 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.

 

Survey: Living wills of Incapacitated seniors ignored in guardianship

The South Florida advocacy group that pushed lawmakers to pass current reforms in adult guardianship asked its membership about their legal experiences. The finding gives a snapshot of a very broken system that is very lucrative for a handful of professionals and their attorneys.

The foremost finding of survey is that in more than three-quarters of cases judges ignored advanced directives of seniors and instead appointed a professional guardian, thus rendering carefully planned living wills moot.

Retired Hollywood physician Sam Sugar, who co-founded Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, said the survey went out to 285 members and that he received 67 responses from throughout the country.

His group says many professional guardians appointed to oversee the lives of incapacitated adults – a majority of them seniors with dementia – often take financial advantage of these vulnerable citizens and work with attorneys to drain assets and property. As plenary guardians they have complete control over their assets.

Sam Pic
Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship.

In the meantime, the family of these so-called wards find themselves powerless because judges are often complicit and allow the ransacking of the senior’s life savings. The problems in adult guardianship can be found nationwide as more baby boomers live longer their heirs and are more vulnerable to dementia and other degenerative diseases.

The Palm Beach Post in its series, Guardianships: A Broken Trust, revealed the incestuous nature of guardianship and how money from the savings of incapacitated seniors flowed into the household of Circuit Judge Martin Colin through his wife, professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt.

Palm Beach County Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath  — in a series of reforms announced in the wake of the series —  transferred Judge Colin out of the Probate & Guardianship Division. Colin announced his retirement.

His wife’s cases were all moved to the North County Courthouse to prevent an appearance of favoritism by Colin’s closest colleagues but she continues to operate.

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 presides over a hearing. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

 

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 hearing  (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

The Florida Legislature in the last two years has passed reforms to give the state its first regulatory authority over professional guardians and to hold them criminally accountable when they defraud the wards in their care.

Sugar said ignoring pre-need directives is a violation of due process for the incapacitated seniors and “spits in the face of our American notions of fair play, civil rights and justice.”

“This racket is unfettered, growing, predatory, and operates with absolute impunity because of the involvement of elected judges who function without supervision or monitoring or juries,” Sugar said.

In a landmark case, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach last year ruled that pre-need directives must be followed by the judge when determining a guardian.

The questionnaire also found 30 percent of guardianships are switched from public to private guardianship and back.

“This tactic is used by abusive guardians and their attorneys to maximize their cash flow since in many public guardianships for destitute individuals are prohibited from selling any property the ward might own,” Sugar said. “In switching back and forth between public and private guardianship the predators guarantee that they will take every possible dollar from every possible source.”

More than 80 percent of those who sent in survey said they believed the judge who appointed the professional guardian were improperly influenced. About 65 percent of respondents believe the judge was responsible for the abuse in their cases.

Nearly 50 percent said their loved ones were isolated from their family by professional guardians and over-medicated.

All the results of the AAAPG survey can be found by clicking here.

 

Post investigation: Another blow to Judge Colin

After weeks of speculation, the chief judge confirmed that Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin is out as coordinator of a new guardianship program to resolve family disputes.

Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath transferred Colin from the Probate & Guardianship Division – as well as the family division – following The Palm Beach Post’s investigation into Colin. Now Colin is out as coordinator of the Eldercare Coordination Program, thus severing all ties with adult guardianship.

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 now has no ties to adult guardianship following latest move by chief judge. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Colin’s wife – Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt – works as a professional guardian for incapacitated seniors and adults. The Post found numerous complaints about Savitt taking tens of thousands of dollars in fees without judicial approval, double-billing and funneling cash to suspect family members of the seniors in her care.

Her work as a guardian created what a former Florida Supreme Court justice dubbed an appearance of impropriety for Colin and conflicts for the judiciary as a whole. Colin wouldn’t hear Savitt’s cases, but did allow for years attorneys who represented his wife and referred her guardianship cases to appear before him. Colin would at times grant lucrative fees to these attorneys.

In the meantime, families said Colin’s colleagues would turn a blind eye to their complaints about Savitt – particularly Circuit Judge David French, reportedly a friend of Colin and Savitt.

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)
Families say Colin’s fellow judges turned a blind eyes to their complaints about his wife, professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt . (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Besides his job as judge, Colin helped coordinate the Eldercare program,  which sought to resolve disputes among family members of seniors in guardianships. The program uses professionals – such as psychologists, lawyers and former judges – to sit down with families over a two-year span in hopes of resolving issues over money and care.

Circuit Judge Janice Brustares Keyser will now oversee the program, which is still in its infant stages but aims to save money by decreasing litigation in court. Some guardianship attorneys make thousands of dollars in fees – taken from the seniors’ accounts – by exploiting family discord, according to guardianship reform advocates.