Judge finds Tom Benson competent to run Saints, Pelicans (TX/LA)

Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson will remain in control of the teams and his billion-dollar fortune after a New Orleans judge on Thursday (June 18) found the 87-year-old capable of managing his own affairs, blocking his estranged heirs’ attempt to take over.

Orleans Civil District Judge Kern Reese ruled Benson competent after an eight-day trial that ended last week.

His daughter, Renee Benson, and grandchildren, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, had asked the judge to declare the patriarch incompetent, arguing the octogenarian is in mental decline and is being unduly influenced by his wife and an inner circle of team executives.

But for now, Benson will stay in control of his estimated $1.7 billion fortune, built over decades on car dealerships, real estate and banking deals in New Orleans and San Antonio.

Reese ruled that Benson “is able to make reasoned decisions as to his person and his property and therefore this court will not order an interdiction of any kind in these proceedings.”

Judge “sat across from the defendant, looked into his eyes”

Benson didn’t testify in his competency trial, but the ruling revealed that Reese did hear from Benson in the case. Reese wrote that he interviewed Benson at Saints headquarters April 20.

“The court sat across from the defendant, looked into his eyes, listened carefully to his responses, and concluded the capacity to make reasoned decisions was present,” Reese said.

Lawyers for Benson and the heirs were present at the interview, but only the judge was allowed to ask questions.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the heirs intend to appeal the decision. The Bensons also remain in a separate battle over the administration of family trusts that is being fought in separate courts.

The three heirs filed their lawsuit after a family falling out became public in January. Benson announced he was cutting ties with his would-be heirs with plans to leave full ownership of the Saints and Pelicans to his wife of 10 years, Gayle Benson.

As word of the ruling came down on Thursday, Benson was preparing to have dinner with former President George H.W. Bush in Walker’s Point, Maine, where the Bush family has a waterfront home.

In a written statement, Benson said he was thankful to everyone who worked on his case.

“Gayle and I wish to thank the entire community for the overwhelming support that we have received during this trying time,” Benson’s statement said. “Through it all, our fans and our sponsors showed unwavering support for our Saints and Pelicans.”

Lawyers for the three heirs said they’re disappointed the judge did not appoint Renee and Rita to step in and manage Tom Benson’s affairs “to protect their father and grandfather, as well as the teams businesses.”

“For his sake, and that of the fans, customers, and employees, they will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to assure his well-being and that of the Saints, Pelicans, and Benson Automobile dealerships,” their statement said.

Renee, Rita and Ryan all testified in the trial, which was closed to the public. The heirs have said publicly that they’re concerned about Benson and want to protect him.

Benson ”agonized” over decision to cut off heirs

Reese’s ruling revealed Benson was considering making Rita LeBlanc his sole successor as owner of the Saints and Pelicans as recently as Dec. 19. But on Dec. 27, Benson wrote a letter to Renee, Rita and Ryan, firing them from the family’s various businesses and cutting off communication with them.

In his ruling, Reese pointed to testimony from a nurse who cared for Benson, Takiyah Daniels, who the judge said was “found to be perhaps the most credible fact witness.”

Daniels testified that Benson “agonized over distancing himself from his family members, cried about it, read the December 27 2014 letter three times, and then decided to place his signature on the document,” the judge’s ruling said.

“She testified that no one stood over him while he signed it,” the ruling said. “It was his decision.”

The judge also heard testimony from Gayle, three psychiatrists who evaluated Tom Benson, a former nurse, a longtime business associate and Benson’s estate lawyer.

Three doctors split 2-1 on competency

Two of the three doctors, John Thompson and Kenneth Sakauye, testified that Benson has “sustained a mild cognitive impairment” that has affected his short-term memory “but does not rob him of his own volition and ability to make reasoned decisions,” the ruling says.

A third psychiatrist, Dr. Ted Bloch, found that Benson’s impairment “was moderate to severe, thereby warranting full interdiction,” the ruling says.

Benson bought the Saints in 1985 and the Pelicans — then the Hornets — in 2012.

“The court has carefully reviewed the evidence and finds that petitioners filed this interdiction proceeding after Tom Benson made the drastic decision to alter his succession plans for ownership of his professional sports teams and allocation of his estate upon his demise,” Reese wrote.

Legal battle continues

While Thursday’s ruling was a victory for Benson, the legal battle for control of his estate continues in courthouses in New Orleans and San Antonio. Those cases might decide whether Benson is actually able to carry out his plans to carve his relatives out of ownership of the sports teams.

Benson has sued the trustee who oversees trust funds for the three heirs in federal court in New Orleans, seeking to force through a swap of assets that would replace all stock in the Saints and Pelicans with promissory notes. In Texas, a probate judge earlier this year replaced Benson as trustee over a fund for his daughter that holds half-shares in his auto dealerships, banks and other Texas holdings.

Benson was rebuffed in an attempt to have a federal judge in Texas overturn that ruling, and last week re-filed an appeal in the Texas 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The legal defeat for Benson’s heirs in the interdiction case was not totally unexpected, as having a person declared incompetent is difficult. But Metairie trust and estate lawyer Harry Molaison said interdiction cases are often a prelude to future lawsuits. An appeal of Reese’s ruling is always possible, and if Benson’s condition declines, his heirs could again try to have him declared incompetent, Molaison said.

Often, relatives will file for interdiction just to have a judge order the same battery of medical tests Benson withstood, Molaison said, so they will have evidence to use in a lawsuit challenging a will.

“If you think that you have a case for incompetency, you want to establish that prior to the death,” Molaison said. “Because you can’t establish it after someone is deceased.

“Sometimes you go through the interdiction proceeding just so you can get evidence you can preserve for the will contest.”

Staff reporter Jeff Duncan contributed to this report.

Attribution:

Judge finds Tom Benson competent to run Saints, Pelicans
Katherine Sayre/Andy Grimm
June 18, 2015
The Times-Picayune
http://www.nola.com/saints/index.ssf/2015/06/tom_benson_saints_pelicans_com.html

Additional coverage:

What’s next for Tom Benson and Saints, Pelicans ownership?
Katherine Sayre
June 19, 2015
The Times-Picayune
http://www.nola.com/saints/index.ssf/2015/06/whats_next_for_tom_benson_and.html

Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson triumphed Thursday (June 18) in his family’s feud over the teams when a judge declared the 87-year-old mentally fit to continue controlling his billion-dollar empire.

But the future for Benson and the teams is far from clear.

Several questions must be answered in court before the succession of the Saints and Pelicans is determined. Here’s a look at what’s next.

Will the heirs appeal?

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Tom Benson’s daughter, Renee, and grandchildren Rita and Ryan LeBlanc intend to appeal Judge Kern Reese’s ruling denying their petition to have the patriarch declared incompetent.

One legal expert told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune that Reese’s ruling was thorough and tackled all of the issues an appeals court might review.

“I think it will be very difficult to win on appeal,” the expert said. (Read more about that here.)

In a statement Thursday, the estranged heirs said they intend to “take whatever steps are necessary to assure his well-being and that of the Saints, Pelicans and Benson Automobile dealerships.”

Can he transfer full ownership of the teams to his wife Gayle at all?

Even if the heirs don’t appeal, there’s no guarantee Tom Benson can do what he wants with ownership interests in the teams. Benson put non-voting stock in the teams in trust funds created for Renee, Rita and Ryan in recent years, when the trio were still next in line in Benson’s mind.

But on Dec. 27, 2014, Benson wrote a letter to the so-called “three R’s” cutting off any future contact and firing them from his businesses. He now intends to leave the teams to his third wife, Gayle.

Benson was thwarted in that effort, at least temporarily. A San Antonio lawyer overseeing his estranged heirs’ trusts blocked Benson’s attempt to remove ownership interests in the teams in exchange for promissory notes, forgiven debt and real estate.

Benson filed a lawsuit against the trustee, Robert Rosenthal, in federal court in New Orleans, seeking to force the exchange of assets. U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo is now considering a motion by Rosenthal to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. If the case is dismissed, Benson could file the lawsuit again in Texas.

Will Tom Benson stay in control in San Antonio?

Another clash over family assets is playing out in Texas. At the request of Renee Benson, Bexar County Probate Judge Tom Rickhoff temporarily removed Tom Benson as trustee over a trust fund holding interests in San Antonio car dealerships, a bank and real estate.

Rickhoff appointed temporary co-receivers Phil Hardberger, former mayor of San Antonio, and Art Bayern, an estate lawyer, to take over the trust. The judge said he intended to wait for the competency case in New Orleans to be settled.

Tom Benson’s lawyers, though, have asked the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals to overturn Rickhoff’s decision.

Will the battle continue after Benson’s death?

The heirs faced long odds of winning their interdiction case, and they might have filed the lawsuit in anticipation of a future fight over Benson’s will, according to legal experts. The findings of psychiatrists in the case could be used to help the heirs down the road.

They couldn’t challenge a will until after Benson dies, but a challenge is likely.

Staff reporter Andy Grimm contributed to this report.

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