Tom Benson was the kind of man who seemed to have his whole life in order: After building up a string of multi-million-dollar car dealerships around New Orleans and San Antonio, Benson bought the New Orleans Saints in 1985, and took them all the way to a Super Bowl victory in 2010. From the outside, he seemed to have it all.
But underneath all that success, Benson had familial problems that have now upset all his estate and succession plans, creating an incapacitation crisis for Benson and threatening the future ownership of the Saints. Benson’s problems provide some lessons for estate planners, especially in relation to succession plans.
A few years back, Benson declared his intention to leave control of the Saints to his daughter, Renee, and his granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc. Rita had been groomed for a while to take control of the operation; she took over the New Orleans VooDoo, an Arena Football League team that Tom Benson also owned, back in 2003.
She served as the Saints’ vice chairman of the Board until January of this year, when it was reported that she had cleaned out her desk and was reported to have severed all ties with the team. According to a subsequently filed lawsuit, Benson told all of his auto dealerships to ban Renee Benson and Rita LeBlanc from visiting the dealerships, and asked managers to call the police if necessary.
Tom Benson, who had been widowed by Renee’s mother, announced last month that rather than Renee and Rita, he was making his third wife, Gayle, his successor.
But Benson’s daughter and granddaughter fought back. They charged in the lawsuit that Benson had failed to perform his duties as trustee of the Shirley L. Benson testamentary trust, named for his late wife and Renee’s mother, including paying management fees, property insurance and property taxes on time.
In late February, a Bexar County Probate Court judge in Bexar County, Texas, Monday found that these actions and cutting off relations with his granddaughter constituted a “trust breach,” and suspended Tom Benson from running the trust. He appointed two receivers to oversee the trust.