Tom Benson, the 89-year-old owner of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and the NBA’s Pelicans finalized an agreement settling a lawsuit he filed in 2015 against the trustees of a group of funds benefiting his estranged daughter and her children. Benson’s litigation against the trustees was the last piece of litigation pending related to a bitter family feud that has been in the headlines for the past several years.
Previously challenging Benson’s mental competency, his daughter Renee and her children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, could again contest any will drawn up by the family patriarch after he dies. Testimony in this latest dispute revealed that Benson changed his will to leave control of his billion-dollar business empire to his wife about the same time that he cut Renee, Rita and Ryan out of his personal and professional life.
The settlement resolves a dispute that focused on the valuable non-voting shares of Benson’s two professional sports franchises. These were some of the business assets Benson wanted to remove from the irrevocable trust he established for the benefit of Renee, Rita and Ryan.
Judge Jane Triche Milazzo for the U.S. District Court for the Easter District of Louisiana wrote last year that the trusts “clearly” grant Benson “the power to effect a substitution without approval” with evidence the assets are equal.
The settlement wasn’t made available to the public but came just days before the case was set to go to trial. The imminent trial prompted attorneys for the NFL and the NBA to ask the court seal certain pieces of “commercially sensitive” evidence from public view. Some speculated that this evidence would disclose how much money the ultra-lucrative NFL and NBA teams are earning. Court records showed a few months ago that the NFL would recommend that its other club owners allow Benson to borrow as much as 50% over the league’s $250 million team debt limit to close a settlement agreement.
Benson’s attorney, Phil Wittmann, said the Saints and Pelicans owner was relieved the case was over and that hopefully he wouldn’t ever have to deal with litigation related to the family feud again.
The pivotal issue in the lawsuit against the trustees was whether Benson had offered assets of equal value, which is as required by law, in exchange for the business assets—the stock in the sports teams—he wanted to take out of the trust funds set up for three relatives. Until the settlement, the two trustees argued repeatedly that Benson had failed to provide the mandated equivalent value for those assets.
The judge originally set the case for trial in June 2016, but she removed it from her docket to help facilitate a settlement. The talks were more complex and lengthy than anticipated, and when there was no sign of a settlement two months later, Judge Milazzo placed the case back on her calendar. This may have been a signal that she was pushing both sides to finalize a deal.
Both sides told the judge in November 2016 that they were close to a settlement, but it wasn’t until mid-February that attorneys met with the judge in her chambers to present a final agreement.
You may not own a professional sports team, but you still may have issues and questions about trusts, trustees, and beneficiaries, particularly when you have already prepared a trust or funded an irrevocable trust that is no longer suiting your desires. Contact N·M Law, APC (949-253-0000) to speak to a trust administration attorney. N·M Law, APC, encourages you to take advantage of our team’s superior skill and knowledge. Contact us today to get answers to your questions about trusts.
Disclaimer: This article is intended to provide a general summary of laws in the State of California and should not be construed as a legal opinion nor a complete legal analysis of the subject matter. Noelle Minto is an attorney at NM Law, APC in Tustin, California, a law firm specializing in Trusts & Estates and Business Transactions.