There certainly was a lot of hubbub emanating out of the headquarters of the New Orleans Saints this past week, which in part took Deflate-gate off of the top of the sports headlines, at least in the Big Easy (although not so much for this exile). The story line perhaps is almost as old as mankind itself: greed, jealousy and distrust in families, especially when it involves remarrying a younger woman who is not the mother of your children. King Lear, anyone?
The players in this sad act are an elderly father, his still fairly new and younger wife, on one side, and his adopted daughter and her two children, on the other side. Also involved behind the scenes for each side are two of the most egotistical and self-aggrandizing lawyers, Phil Wittmann and Randy Smith, who I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, which, in my opinion, doesn’t bode well for anything other than a lengthy vituperative, vicious–and expensive–ordeal.
Neither of those lawyers is known for their prowess in settling cases until the eve of trial after probably millions of dollars in legal fees have been collected. I knew and deeply respected Wittmann’s late name partners Paul O.H. Pigman and Saul Stone, but I never developed much respect for Wittmann because of his propensity in pleadings and in court to take a scorched earth view of litigation. Smith obviously learned well. Given the way these guys practice, this one could get very ugly as almost nothing is sacred with either of those guys.
Niccolo Machiavelli (yeah, that Machiavelli) once wrote “Men sooner forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony,” which essentially means that heirs are more impacted by the loss or potential loss of their inheritance than the loss of a parent. That seems to be as true today as it was when Machiavelli penned his now infamous sixteenth century entreaty essentially seeking employment to Lorenzo the Magnificent de Medici (which, by the way, was unsuccessful in that aspect, although the book did quite well, albeit after his death).
This story involves the venerable owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans: Tom Benson. Mr. Benson, who I actually had the pleasure of meeting several times when I lived there, really was the savior of NFL football in N’Awlins. I would describe Tom Benson as a man who would do almost anything for charity. However, make no mistake about it: Tom Benson is down deep a tough and persuasive businessman. After all, he was a car dealer, and car dealing is a very tough business.
The story broke this past week as Tom Benson announced that his wife, not heir-apparent granddaughter Rita Benson LeBlanc, would become the continuity in ownership of the Saints and Pelicans. Shortly thereafter, Benson’s adopted daughter and her two children returned fire, launching a two state attack that attacks Tom Benson’s mental competence. The Texas litigation appears to be purely financial, i.e., to continue the cash flow to the daughter’s management company, money that I’m sure that she’ll need to pay the undoubtedly massive fees of Smith, who once worked for Wittmann, where he learned the fine art of milking a client’s emotions for oodles of cash.
However, this saga actually probably began when Tom Benson married Gayle back in 2004, at which point the daughter and grandchildren were probably already apoplectic about a new family member. Granddaughter and erstwhile heir-apparent Rita Benson LeBlanc definitely seems to have anger management and entitlement issues, and she actually had her wings clipped by Tom Benson back in 2012 for an overly abrasive and contentious management style wherein she ran through many personal assistants.
The marquis litigation is an interdiction proceeding that Smith filed on behalf of the daughter and grandchildren that will be decided in an Orleans Parish District Court by Judge Kern Reese, who wasn’t on that bench when I was in practice in New Orleans, so I don’t know him (although it was my opinion that the quality of person who took that bench definitely significantly declined beginning back in the early 1990’s). I’m certain that whatever Reese’s decision is, his won’t be the last word.
There will be long and drawn out –and very expensive–appeals process, and I’m confident that this one will end up in the Louisiana Supreme Court. Having participated in the crafting of the current interdiction law in Louisiana and having commented on it, albeit years ago, interdiction petitions are serious business and require specific, verified allegations. Perhaps in a follow-up piece, I’ll comment on the petition itself.
In my opinion, the family, including all sides, would be well served by calling an immediate standstill truce and allowing an interdisciplinary team of mediators and wealth psychologists in to begin to work through the issues off-line outside of the public limelight and paparazzi instead of allowing their respective legal gunslingers (because that’s what Wittmann and Smith are) to fight it out at the legal O K Corral.
If that happens, the only winners will be Stone Pigman (Wittmann’s firm) and Smith & Fawer (Smith’s firm). However, especially given their involvement, and after having written two books on blended families (Estate Planning for the Blended Family with Emily Bouchard and The Tools & Techniques of Estate Planning for Modern Families with Stephan R. Leimberg), I am less than sanguine that this family will heed that advice anytime soon.
What is likely to happen in the meantime is that the management of the Saints, Pelicans and the Benson empire will suffer for it. The team of Loomis and Payton, who know what they’re doing with respect to the Saints, are unlikely to stick around to witness this fight to the death and beyond, because I predict that round two will commence shortly after Tom Benson assumes room temperature. Watch for fireworks beginning with the likely “pull the plug decision” that could come at the end of Tom Benson’s life, continuing on to the funeral and who can attend, etc. The blended family of the late Casey Kasem are still fighting over him.
If I could have ten minutes with each party, outaide of the presence of their lawyers, I’d tell Tom Benson that his daughter and grandchildren are frightened about loss of their inheritance and that he should take some immediate step to assure them of a significant, immediate and meaningful inheritance, free from his wife, Gayle Benson, even if it means paying some gift tax now. I’d tell Tom Benson that he’s making a huge mistake in cutting off physical access to himself with respect to his daughter and grandchildren because that really has done nothing but fuel the flames of discontent and distrust by his daughter and her children and given them something to include in their allegations. Like them right now or not, they’re still his family and have been far longer than Gayle Benson. This is about love and trust.
I’d tell the daughter and her two obviously spoiled rotten and feeling entitled children that Tom Benson isn’t dead yet and is free to do with his property as he wishes and that their actions certainly give Tom Benson adequate grounds to cut them out of what they obviously perceive to be their birthright, which it isn’t. I would tell them that they need to respect his need for companionship and offer to stop the interdiction proceeding if they can have physical access to Tom Benson to ensure that Gayle Benson actually is not asserting undue influence as they claim in their petition for interdiction, which Gayle Benson can’t object to because if she does, that would speak volumes that perhaps she is the gold-digger as the daughter and grandchildren contend.
I’d tell Gayle Benson that, despite the allegations, she’s not the issue but that she must rise above the fray and the onslaught of allegations that Smith and his underlings obviously will throw at her (her deposition will likely be a doozy) and look to the long-term familial relationships here and work toward continuing those. Whatever she can do to get Tom Benson to see his daughter and grandchildren regularly, she should do. She must do.
As an aside, I remember becoming tangentially involved late in a piece of vexatious estate litigation against Wittmann many years ago. One day, Wittmann came in wearing a tie that said “ubi testamentum ibi heres” (Latin that essentially means where there’s a will, there are heirs, which I’m certain that he wore on purpose that day). We won that case, even though we were on the wrong side of an arcane (and ultimately repealed) law. Then, obviously behind the scenes, I helped my friend and Wittmann’s partner Paul Pigman solve his client’s estate tax issue that our win caused, which indeed was gratifying, as was writing an article about that case in which I found (after the case was concluded) and cited a very old case that Wittmann had failed to find that would have helped him win.
I’m praying for the Benson family for healing and strength. With their lawyers, they’re gonna need those prayers.