On Thursday June 18th, after an eight-day hearing, New Orleans Civil District Judge Kern Reese found Saints owner Tom Benson competent and capable of managing his own affairs, giving Tom the first victory in what’s shaping up to be an epic legal struggle. For those in need of a quick recap, Benson’s Daughter, Renee Benson, and his grandchildren, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, initiated the proceeding and sought to have Benson declared incompetent after he adjusted his estate plan to cut out his children and informed them that they would be fired from their positions with the family’s various businesses and that he would now be leaving full ownership of the NFL’s Saints and NBA’s Pelicans to his wife, Gayle, via a Dec. 27, 2014 letter.
In making his decision, the judge heard testimony from 3 doctors who independently assessed Tom, his former nurse, Takiyah Daniels, who was single out by Judge Reese in his ruling as “perhaps the most credible fact witness,” Gayle, a former business associate and Tom’s own estate-planning attorney. Interestingly, Tom didn’t testify.
The two most intriguing pieces of information revealed in the ruling were:
- The Doctors Split 2 - 1 on the issue of Tom’s competence. Two doctors, John Thompson and Kenneth Sakauye, found that Tom has sustained “mild cognitive impairment” that would effect things like his short term memory but wouldn’t render him incapable of making reasoned decisions. The third doctor, Ted Block, stated that Tom's impairment was “moderate to severe, thereby warranting full interdiction.” This surely isn't the last time these three doctor's respective testimonies will come up before this fight is over.
- Tom was still considering naming Rita LeBlanc his sole ownership successor for the Saints and Pelicans only 8 days before he sent the letter informing his heirs that they’d been cut off. What caused the sudden change of heart isn’t entirely clear, but the facts show that Tom had a meeting with Leblanc (and others) on Dec. 19, 2014, at which point, by his own admission, he was privately considering naming her his sole ownership successor. Then, according The Times Picayune, on Dec. 21, 2014, Rita had a public confrontation with Gayle in the owner’s box during a Saints game, during which Rita allegedly grabbed Gayle by the shoulders and shook her before the two women were forcibly separated by team personnel. What precipitated this scuffle is unknown, but the timing can’t be ignored.
So, where do we go from here? Well, this hearing was just the first skirmish of a much larger struggle. While this ruling declared (at least for now) that Tom is capable of making his own decisions regarding his estate, there are currently two other separate lawsuits in New Orleans and San Antonio involving the trusts that house the assets in question that will ultimately determine if Tom is actually able to carry out his revised estate plan. In New Orleans, Tom is suing the trustee of the trust funds for his three heirs seeking to compel an exchange of the stock in the Pelicans and Saints that the trusts currently hold for promissory notes. In Texas, Tom is appealing a judge’s earlier decision to replace him as trustee over a trust for his daughter containing half shares in his auto-dealerships, banks and other Texas holdings (all of which are less headline grabbing than the professional sports teams, but still an integral, and valuable, part of this conflict).
Finally, how much of a defeat this decision really represents for the Benson heirs is in question as well. Though a declaration of incompetence was obviously the best possible outcome for them, and that didn’t come to pass, this result was likely not unexpected, as incompetence is notoriously difficult to prove. However, the true value that the Benson children may have gleaned from this hearing is that they were able to get Tom to undergo the various tests and examinations that the court required. If the Benson heirs are anticipating a future challenge to Tom’s will, the doctors’ testimonies and findings could represent valuable evidence in any such proceeding, particularly since all three found at least some degree of impairment, which could be useful ammunition for arguments regarding both competence and Tom's susceptibility to any potential undue influence, which would be impossible to obtain once Tom is deceased. It’s entirely possible that the Benson heirs willingly put themselves in a losing situation here in order to secure a future victory.
The ruling itself can be found here.