In a swiftly escalating situation, the children and grandchildren of billionaire New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson filed suit in Louisiana Civil District Court on Thursday seeking to have the 87-year-old Tom declared mentally incapacitated after he decided to remove them from the succession plan for his two sports franchises in favor of his current (third) wife, Gayle. The petitioners, his adopted daughter, Renee Benson, and her two children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, are requesting that Tom be evaluated by an independent geriatric psychiatrist to assess his mental state and that Renee, as next of kin, should be appointed to oversee Tom’s businesses in the event that it’s determined he lacks the capacity to do so himself. Rita was listed as the Saints’ and Pelicans’ co-owner and chairwoman of the board until Wednesday and was long viewed as Tom’s heir apparent.
Though the details are a bit fuzzy, as they so often are in family cases like this, it appears that this situation came to a head just after Christmas, when, according to The New Orleans Advocate, Benson sent a signed letter to his relatives informing them that they’d become “offensive” and didn’t "act in an appropriate manner.” He then proceeded to ban them from all properties that he owns, including Saints and Pelicans games and offices, as well as various car dealerships and television facilities around Louisiana. Tom, Louisiana's only billionaire, issued a statement on Thursday claiming that he’d “thought about and prayed about (altering the succession plan) for a while now.” The catalyst for his decision remains unclear.
Tom has been in poor physical health recently, as he suffered a serious fall during the NFL owners meeting in Atlanta in May and made several subsequent trips to the emergency room for altitude-related ailments while at training camp with the Saints in the Allegheny Mountains during the Summer. However, prior to this suit, there was little reason, at least publically, to question his mental state.
Some of the more interesting excerpts from the petition include a claim that Tom’s diet consists largely of “candy, ice cream, sodas and red wine” and an allegation that Gayle was the driving force behind Tom’s curious attempted purchase of the Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots in the Summer of 2014. NFL owners are, after all, barred from having gambling interests.
Though this story is still in its infant stages, and I’m sure there are many developments to follow, it represents a fairly common fact pattern for blended families. Indeed. It’s one that we’ve seen several variations on in the last year alone, with the bizarre Casey Kasem case and the hopeful conclusion of the Anna Nicole Smith saga offering particularly public and outlandish examples. Special care must be taken when planning to account for the often-divergent interests of current spouses and children from previous marriages. One advantage that the Benson family has in this regard is that this conflict emerged while Tom is still alive and his mental capacity can actually be measured (though this scenario brings it’s own particular drama, as Donald Sterling taught us). As such, though the eventual result is unlikely to make both sides happy, at least it has a chance to have some basis in measurable reality. It’s certainly one to keep an eye on.