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.

 

 

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.

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.

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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.

 

Gov. Scott signs guardianship reform law to protect seniors

More than four years ago, concerned families went to lawmakers for the first time with their stories of how professional guardians were ransacking the estates of the elderly.

Groups such as South Florida-based Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship talked about how unethical guardians appointed by judges were isolating seniors from their families, over-medicating them and then taking their money through frivolous fees.

On Thursday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill giving the state its first regulatory authority over professional guardians who are appointed by courts to take over the lives of incapacitated senior citizens. The bill was one of 25 Scott signed into law.

The new law creates an Office of Public and Professional Guardians and requires the office standardize practices and create rules for professional guardians. It also gives the office enforcement power, including the ability to revoke a guardian’s registration.

It follows in the wake of a guardianship reform bill signed last year by Scott that imposed criminal penalties for exploitation or abuse of a senior in guardianship among other changes.

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Sheila Jaffe (left) and Natalie Andre (right), President of FACTS (Families Against Court Travesties), protest last month with a group of people about the state of guardianship outside the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Guardianship reforms are not just happening in Tallahassee.

Following The Palm Beach Post’s series Guardianships: A Broken Trust in January on how judges are complicit in allowing the savings of seniors to be soaked by guardians and their attorneys, the chief judge acted.

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James Vassallo with his father, Albert. Vassallo claims professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt – wife of Judge Martin Colin – took money without court approval and failed to account for all of his father’s assets.

Palm Beach County Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath transferred Circuit Judge Martin Colin out of the Probate & Guardianship Division.

Colin’s wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, works as a professional guardian, compiling complaints from families for taking tens of thousands of dollars in fees without court approval. The chief judge required the south county judges to recuse themselves from her cases and instituted other reforms, as well.

 

James Vassallo’s father was in a Savitt guardianship. He said the new law signed by Scott could be the right remedy.

“Nobody was looking at the professional guardians watching what they were doing,” he said. “They are abusing their guardianship privileges.”

Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder AAAPG, said the passage of this law is clear progress.

“We look forward to being intimately involved – as promised in the legislation – in the development of rules and regulations of this new department as advocates for victims of abusive guardianships,” he said.

 

 

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.