SAN ANTONIO – A legal dispute between Tom Benson, the owner of the NFL's New Orleans Saints and NBA's Pelicans, and his estranged daughter over who should control a family trust fund in Texas has been settled.
On Jan. 22, 10 days before the start of a civil trial in San Antonio, a confidential agreement was reached by Benson and his daughter Renee Benson over the Shirley Benson Testamentary Trust, which was created in 1980 after the death of Renee's mother, Tom Benson's first wife.
“If you settle and resolve things without going to trial, without making a public record, it’s almost always going to be confidential,” Craig J. Mordock, an attorney with the Mordock Law Group, told the Louisiana Record.
The trust holds nearly $1 billion in interests in Benson car dealerships, Lone Star Capital Bank and real estate.
In December, Benson offered to resign as trustee of the trust as long as his daughter didn’t succeed him. Instead, he suggested a bank or other neutral party take control of the trust.
This recent development is part of a legal fight Benson and his family have been engaged in since Benson’s announcement last January that he would not be leaving ownership of the Saints and Pelicans to his daughter and grandchildren -- Rita and Ryan LeBlanc -- but instead to his current wife, Gayle Benson. He also fired his daughter and grandchildren as executives from the teams and cut off communication with them. Meanwhile, two other lawsuits are still unresolved.
In response, Benson’s heirs filed a lawsuit last January arguing that the 88-year-old was incompetent due to mental decline, and that his wife and an inner circle of Saints executives were influencing his decisions. Benson disagreed and insisted that his decisions are in the best interest of his sports franchises and empire.
A New Orleans judge disagreed with the heirs’ assertion; and after an eight-day trial in June, ruled that Benson was competent enough to run the teams. His heirs are appealing the decision and a ruling on the appeal is still pending.
Mordock said it is possible that the outcome of the competency appeal may give rise to arguments contesting the terms of the settlement.
“If he’s presumed incompetent then it opens the door for the settlement to be challenged,” Mordock said.
In a separate lawsuit, Benson received a favorable ruling in October, when a judge blocked an attempt to prevent proceedings determining whether he could swap ownership shares in trusts for promissory notes.
The three trusts were set up for Renee, Rita and Ryan, and overseen by San Antonio attorney Mary Rowe. The trusts reportedly hold more than $260 million in assets, and include 95 percent in Pelicans’ stock and 31 percent in Saints’ stock.
Mordock believes this drawn-out bitter legal battle between Benson and his estranged heirs could have been prevented.
“He should have called everybody into a room, then paid the disinherited heirs a nice chunk of money and said, ‘You guys are not in charge of the Saints,’” Mordock said.
Some may question why Benson is putting up such a fight to maintain control over his billion dollar fortune.
“It’s his life’s work so he has a right to decide how it’s disseminated to his heirs and what goes on after he’s gone,” Mordock said.