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Post Superbowl Story: Battle over Billionaire Saints Owner’s Trust

Tom Benson Trust Conservatorship Case

First off, a quick congratulations to the Denver Broncos for winning the 2016 Superbowl. I’m certain Denverites are grateful for the local victory, and are hopefully reveling in their teams’ success as I write this. The people of New Orleans were blessed with no such victory this year, either with their football team, the Saints, or thus far with their basketball team, the Pelicans. Instead, New Orleans sports fans have had a year filled with legal drama over the billions of the teams’ owner, Tom Benson.

Last spring I wrote a post about the ongoing legal battle over the trust of Billionaire New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson. Now in his 80’s, Mr. Benson mysteriously removed over $25 million from a bank account last January and simultaneously cut his heirs out of his billion dollar trust. And who should replace his only living child as the new trustee? Yes, you guessed it – the {insert your own adjective here} stepmother, and wife of 10 years, Gayle Benson.

As might be expected, Benson’s daughter, Renee (now 59 and only a few years younger than her stepmother) became just a little bit concerned. Swift action was taken to temporarily remove Benson as trustee of the Shirley Benson Trust, which had been created after his first wife’s death in 1980. Renee suspected undue influence and put forth allegations that Benson was suffering from dementia. As is typical when there are concerns about mental capacity to manage assets, a probate judge in San Antonio appointed temporary trustees, former San Antonia Mayor Phil Hardberger, and estate attorney Art Bayern to manage the assets. This was no small job. Benson’s trust consists of a business empire valued at over $2 billion dollars and includes both NFL and NBA teams, auto dealers, a TV station, a bank, and substantial real estate holdings. 

A trial subsequently ensued, the result of which put Benson back in at the helm of his empire last June. The probate judge found the Saints and Pelican’s owner mentally competent to make his own financial decisions. The ruling also upheld Tom’s decision to place third wife Gayle as successor Trustee, making her first in line to inherit the entirety of his empire.

Benson’s daughter Renee and her children Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc immediately appealed the decision, with their attorney citing the repeated denial of requests to question Benson before or during the trial. Their attorney also claimed that testifying physicians failed to employ “sufficient methodology and applied improper standards.”

As an outsider looking in, it is understandable that Renee and her children felt more than slighted by the decision. They were by no means estranged family members who had lost contact with Mr. Benson. Renee worked in his businesses for decades, her daughter Rita had been working in both the Saint’s and Pelican’s organizations for nearly fifteen years, and son Ryan was also involved in managing several of Tom’s businesses. Wife Gayle, on the other hand, was a former interior designer who married Benson in 2004. 

The family’s appeal was set for trial this month, but in the hopes of avoiding a second trial over the Benson trust, a San Antonio Probate Judge ordered the family to mediation. Similar to California probate courts, all cases are ordered to attempt mediation prior to trial. The vast majority of my probate and trust cases in the SF East Bay have successfully been mediated, and it is likely the same is true in San Antonio. Benson was also ordered to be deposed by the opposing party, with the deposition being videotaped. 

Either out of fear of what the deposition might reveal, or disinterest in going back to trial, Benson and his wife settled the case with his children in mediation. Unfortunately for us, terms of the settlement are confidential.

On a lighter note, while we may never know how much money Renee and her children received, or how much Gayle had to give up, I can safely say that the sports teams of the SF Bay Area are in safer hands than New Orleans Saints and the NBA’s Pelicans. In particular, our beloved Golden State Warriors are owned by seemingly young, mentally competent businessman Joseph Lacob and Peter Guber, who will likely steer the team to success for many years to come. 

If you have questions regarding a conservatorship or trust matter, contact my East Bay Elder Law and Trust Litigation Firm in downtown Walnut Creek at 925-322-1763.