By Mort Price, a senior counsel in the Trusts and Estates Practice Group of a Washington, D.C. based law firm. Mort has extensive experience in trusts, estates, commercial transactions, real estate law and much more.
Three days before the scheduled trial date, Tom Benson – owner of the Saints and Pelicans – and his heirs settled their lawsuit. The terms of that settlement are being kept confidential, although the details of the battle between the two sides have been well-publicized.
For years, Benson, 89, had been grooming his daughter Renee and two grandchildren, Ryan and Rita, as the heirs who would someday take over his $2 billion empire, made up of an auto dealership, banking, real estate, and sports businesses.
But in December 2014, that all crumbled when Benson sent the three of them a letter disowning them and banning them from any of his properties. Instead, Benson was planning on handing everything over to his third wife, who he has been married to for 11 years.
His daughter and grandchildren have not spoken to Benson since he disowned him and the rift between the parties has become even more fractured. Last year, the three filed an interdiction petition seeking to have Benson declared incompetent, claiming that he was incapable of handling his affairs.
The petition was denied by a judge, and that decision was affirmed by an appeals court. The family is appealing to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The family says that his wife and some of the executives involved with the football team have taken advantage of Benson, cutting off communication between him and his family, and taking control of all aspects of his life. They say they are continuing their quest for court intervention in order to protect him.
Those in Benson’s inner circle say that he is of sound mind and made this decision himself, claiming he felt that his heirs could not handle overseeing his business empire.
At issue in the lawsuit were the ownership shares of the two sports franchises that are part of the trust funds Benson had set up for his daughter and grandchildren when they were all on good terms.
Trust funds such as the ones Benson set up for his family are a common estate planning tool. Benson wanted to remove the nonvoting shares from the trust fund and replace them with other assets.
Such a transfer is usually allowed, however, his heirs objected because they said that Benson was not swapping those shares with equally valued assets. Last year, Forbes magazine put the value of the Saints at $1.75 billion.
However, had the lawsuit gone forward, a precise value of the team would have been required which would have meant that the financial details of both the Saints and the Pelicans sports franchises – two privately held companies – would have gone on public record as evidence presented in the trial.
In statements after the settlement was announced, both parties said they were pleased with the outcome.
Upon hearing of the final resolution of this case, Attorney X said, “This case is a perfect example of why it is critical to have a solid estate plan in place, with skilled attorneys overseeing that plan.”