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Estate Battles: Competency and Trusteeship

Saints owner Tom Benson at the 2010 Super Bowl. CBS Sports Saints owner Tom Benson at the 2010 Super Bowl. CBS Sports

The fight for New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson's nearly $2 billion fortune took another turn yesterday when a Texas probate judge removed him from trusteeship of his assets in San Antonio and appointed a receiver to oversee his car dealership and banks until the dispute's resolution. Judge Thomas Rickhoff's decision was triggered by an earlier attempt by the 87-year-old Benson to shift ownership of his businesses and property from his daughter Renee to his wife of 10 years, Gayle, last December.

Those assets, however, have been held in irrevocable trusts that the businessman created some two decades ago, and the Saints owner was blocked from transferring them by the trustee. Rickhoff noted as much in his ruling, stating that Benson's sudden move against his daughter didn't align with the "evident intention of the settlers of the trust at the time it was established." Beck's lawyers said they will be appealing the decision.

At the center of the estate battle is Benson's sprawling $1.7 billion business empire, consisting of both the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, as well as banks, real estate, and car dealerships in Louisiana and Texas. Along with her children Rita and Ryan, Renee Benson contends that her father is in failing health and no longer mentally fit to manage his business affairs, which she alleges are subject to manipulation by his wife Gayle, 20 years his junior. Renee has filed suit to assume full control of Benson's assets, marking the opening rounds of a litigation slog that could hinge upon the tycoon's competency.

While Judge Rickhoff appointed new trustees and stopped the transfer of assets Benson had demanded, he did not order any type of psychiatric examination for the billionaire, a decision that would best be made in New Orleans courts. Each party would be sure to have its experts on hand to prove that Benson is either sharp as a tack or completely out to lunch, but mental incompetence would need to be shown through longer-term systemic decline of a subject's faculties rather than seemingly spontaneous caprices or momentary lapses.

There is recent precedent, though, for removing a trustee from control in the case of mental incompetency, as last year's controversial case of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Stern demonstrated. Stern volunteered for psychiatric exams and was found to be suffering from Alzheimers, which enabled his wife to replace him as trustee and proceed to sell the team. Nonetheless, unless Benson freely requests it, only a judge in New Orleans can likely require such a battery of tests. Having represented Stern's wife, Los Angeles trust attorney Laura Zwicker shared insight from her experience:

Sterling basically volunteered for the examination... But I don't know what would have happened if he hadn't. His actions as a trustee in dealing with his assets just weren't that crazy. If you don't have a provision like that in your trust, it's a very high bar to get them to order the tests.

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