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In estate planning limbo: Ownership of the New Orleans Saints

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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.

It wasn’t just financial; it was personal. Renee Benson is also seeking to have her 87-year old father declared mentally unfit to make business decisions. The judge in that case has ordered Tom Benson to be evaluated by three doctors, including a geriatric psychiatrist.

Although the stakes are higher, and the family involvement makes everything trickier, this is not an uncommon situation for succession plans. According to a recent Korn Ferry survey of senior managers and leaders at a wide range of organizations, 64 percent indicated varying degrees of unhappiness with the succession strategy in the place where they work. Another 77 percent said their company did not have a pipeline of talented professionals to move up as needed.

Benson was apparently among that group. Rita Benson LeBlanc hadn’t had a smooth ride as a Saints executive; her grandfather had suspended her for three months back in 2012. And there were reports of a tumultuous relationship with both Tom Benson and other members of the Saints executive team. But she remained part of the team.

The succession problem combines with an incapacitation issue: Benson has not just lost the heir who was once expected to take over his sports empire; he is also being attacked by the people he trusted, who charge him with not being able to manage his own affairs. How could this have been avoided?

There’s a simple answer: He kept control of his team and his assets for too long, without allowing those around him step up. If Benson trusted his daughter and granddaughter to take over after he was deceased, he should have trusted them enough to run the franchise for him before he reached the advanced age of 87. If he didn’t trust them, he should have found different successors to put in place long before now.

There appears to be some weight behind the incapacitation issue. According to the lawsuit, when Benson was recently asked the name of the president of the United States, he answered “Ronald Reagan,” then “Harry Truman.” It also charges that his diet consists of candy, ice cream, sodas and wine.

It’s hard for even a relatively sharp client to fight off a lawsuit charging him with being mentally incapacitated at the age of 87. Benson’s attorneys and estate planners should have seen the possibility of these problems arising years ago, and been proactive about them. Instead, the Benson family — and the entire NFL — may have a huge mess to deal with.