Estranged family of late New Orleans Saints owner opt not to challenge will

Gayle Benson inherited control of New Orleans’s NFL and NBA teams when her husband and the multibillion-dollar organizations’ owner, Tom Benson, died five years ago. Ever since then, her ownership of the NFL’s Saints and the NBA’s Pelicans had been under threat from Tom’s daughter and grandchildren from a previous marriage. Until Thursday they had the option of filing a lawsuit challenging the validity of the will that cut them out of his succession plans and installed Gayle as the inheritor of the sports teams.

That deadline passed without Tom Benson’s daughter Renee or her children Rita and Ryan LeBlanc apparently having taking any such action, however. The time limit’s lapse would mean Gayle Benson has officially consolidated her ownership of the teams, which she has promised will be sold only after her death on the condition that they remain in New Orleans.

Neither Renee Benson nor the LeBlanc siblings could be reached for comment about Thursday’s deadline, and a New Orleans attorney who has previously represented them, Randy Smith, declined comment. Meanwhile, Saints and Pelicans spokesperson Greg Bensel didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, though the teams have previously said that they believed the plan which left Gayle Benson in control of the teams was unassailable.

For her part, in reports published in 2021 by the New Orleans news outlets and WVUE-TV, the 76-year-old Benson had outlined her intent to launch a foundation which would donate the proceeds of the teams’ eventual sale to charitable causes in southeast Louisiana and the surrounding region.

A heated, complex legal battle that pitted the twice-widowed Tom Benson and Gayle – his wife of nearly 14 years – against the relatives collectively nicknamed the 3R’s erupted in 2015 and generated years of headlines.

After Tom Benson informed them that he was abandoning a prior plan that would leave control of his teams and other lucrative business properties to Gayle rather than the 3R’s, the latter party filed a lawsuit alleging the family patriarch was mentally unfit to make such a switch.

Benson was nearing the end of his 90-year life, and they argued that he was increasingly enfeebled and had been manipulated by interlopers into cutting them out.

Benson’s camp countered that he had good reason to cut out the 3R’s – who had worked for him – from his succession. After firing them, he publicly alleged that his daughter and grandchildren mistreated Gayle after she married into the family in 2004.

After proceedings that played out almost entirely in secret, New Orleans state court judge Kern Reese ruled that Tom Benson had some cognitive illness common for those of his age but was competent to make decisions about his succession plans. Two higher courts left the ruling undisturbed.

Almost immediately after Reese’s ruling, Benson drafted a will and testament that appointed Gayle as his sole successor. His lawyers filed that will in court – to Reese himself – the day after Benson died on 15 March 2018.

If the 3R’s had challenged the validity of the will prior to Thursday’s deadline, the ensuing court battle would have almost certainly ended in the same way as the one waged in front of Reese, which made most observers believe such a maneuver would have been a long shot. But pundits said they could also see the 3R’s taking a shot at such a case because winning would be worth billions of dollars.

Despite losing the mental competency trial and the lapse of Thursday’s deadline, the 3R’s were by no means left empty-handed.

They secured lucrative settlements in two separate cases against their family patriarch, including one where they were still being paid as recently as the fall of 2021 for rapidly appreciating, non-controlling Saints and Pelicans stock that Tom Benson clawed back from them. The other settlement gave them control of – among other assets – bank branches, a hunting ranch and car dealerships they later sold to one of Tom Benson’s business rivals.

Attorneys for the 3R’s often noted that Tom Benson settled those cases on the eves of trials that would have forced him to testify in public. They argued that he would not have done so if his legal team were confident he would have come off as lucid in his testimony.

The Saints – who recently beat out other teams to sign free-agent quarterback Derek Carr – made trips to the playoffs in their first three seasons with Gayle Benson as owner but have missed out on the postseason in the two campaigns since longtime signal-caller Drew Brees retired.

In January 2019, referees’ failure to call an obvious pass interference late in the NFL conference championship game almost certainly cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl.

The Pelicans, meanwhile, drafted superstar Zion Williamson less than a year after Gayle Benson became their owner, but he has struggled to stay healthy and the team has only been to the playoffs once.

Source of data and images: theguardian

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