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When Trust Disputes Get Ugly

Saints owner Tom Benson, center, with wife Gayle, left, and daughter Renee, right. AP Photo/Bill Haber Saints owner Tom Benson, center, with wife Gayle, left, and daughter Renee, right. AP Photo/Bill Haber

In estate and trust litigation, it's all too easy for parties to descend into acrimony, and oftentimes the legal process will only serve to strengthen mutually hostile attitudes held by those involved. After all, besides the financial, commercial and property assets at stake, there's the inevitable emotional baggage that comes with a family feud, translating to some potentially rough proceedings in probate court and any accompanying negotiations. Add a massive fortune and media coverage into the equation, and you've created the formula for a nasty estate fight on a grand scale.

As far as nasty estate fights go, the story of New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and his family is shaping up to be a classic case. Benson, 87, heads up a $2 billion business empire that includes not only the Saints, but the New Orleans Pelicans basketball team, car dealerships, real estate, and banks. Benson recently decided to switch ownership of the teams after his death from his daughter Renee Benson and grandchildren, Rita and Ryan, over to his wife Gayle. In order to transfer effective control of the Saints and Pelicans, however, Benson has requested to shift $427 million in assets to Gayle. Yet those funds are held in irrevocable trusts he created two decades prior for his family. When the Saints owner instructed the trustee to turn over the money, the latter refused, citing the necessity of an exchange of equivalent assets - all Benson has offered in return is a $427 promissory note, essentially a jumbo-sized IOU.

In response to Benson's attempt to squeeze her out of inheriting one of Louisiana's biggest business enterprises, daughter Renee has filed a bid seeking to attain executorship of her father's estate, asserting his ill health, incompetency, and undue influence by his wife Gayle, twenty years his junior. The forthcoming litigation struggle promises to be less than amiable, as both sides will be offering their rationales and conducting depositions with experts to determine Benson's fitness to make decisions on the future of his assets. To add to the complexity, the NFL might be pulled in due to the need for approval by fellow-owners when team ownership changes hands. As Gary Roberts, a professor of sports law at Indiana University Law School and onetime NFL attorney, remarked, no one's enthusiastic about the ugliness taking shape in New Orleans:

This is a stinking contest the league is not going to want to wade into...I think they're going to let it sort itself out in the courts down there.

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