If you are worried that gathering with relatives during the holidays might be awkward this year, think of Tom Benson.
At the urging of a Texas judge, the owner of the Saints and Pelicans agreed in October to see whether he and his estranged daughter, Renee Benson, could come to a settlement outside of court in a dispute over a trust fund set up for her many years ago by her mother.
Two months later, those talks have not begun. The reason apparently is that Renee’s attorneys are insisting that her father show up in person to hash out an agreement, and Benson is refusing.
His attorney — citing the “hard feelings” that resulted when Renee and her children tried this year to have a judge in New Orleans declare Tom Benson mentally unfit to make his own business decisions — said Benson wants to avoid “any interaction” with Renee.
And that means any resolution to the Texas case, one of several resulting from the split between Benson and his relatives that became public early this year, could be a while off.
The main point to be negotiated, if the two sides can agree to meet, will be whether Benson, 88, agrees to surrender permanent control of a trust fund that he has been temporarily suspended from overseeing until at least the resolution of his daughter’s lawsuit.
Renee Benson’s attorneys have argued in court filings that such a decision should not be delegated to a representative.
Benson’s attorney, Phil Wittmann, said there is no reason Benson himself needs to be in the same room as his daughter and a mediator to adequately participate in negotiations to settle the Texas trust case, which involves shares in businesses such as a bank and car dealerships but not any stock in the Saints or Pelicans.
Attorneys for the jilted relatives counter that Benson’s desire to avoid the mediation talks is part of an ongoing effort to keep the billionaire businessman — who they allege is in declining health and susceptible to manipulation — out of settings his side can’t completely control.
They also note that Benson recently served notice that he opposes being deposed — or privately questioned by his daughter’s side — in the case. His lawyers say a deposition is not necessary at this time, but his daughter’s attorneys contend that information gathered by a deposition could only assist the settlement negotiations.
As he has done consistently, Wittmann insists that Benson has not been manipulated into any decisions throughout the past year.
Renee’s attorneys, in both Louisiana and Texas, say that claim can’t be taken at face value — not when Benson has not taken the witness stand at preliminary proceedings in the San Antonio trust fund case or at his mental competency trial in New Orleans.
Renee Benson earlier this year asked to remove her father as overseer of the trust created for her by his first wife, Shirley Benson, shortly before Benson revealed he was cutting his daughter and grandchildren out of his succession plans in favor of his third wife, Gayle.
Renee claims her father began making decisions that damaged the trust, such as not making routine bill payments, among other things. She has argued that she and her children have merely been trying to protect the family patriarch from undue manipulation over the past year.
Benson’s attorneys have maintained that he has been a good steward of the trust benefiting his daughter, and they accuse Renee of suing her father because she is jealous that her former role in his life and his businesses has been filled by Gayle Benson.
Since early February, the trust has been under the control of two temporary, court-appointed receivers charged with preserving the fund’s assets.
Bexar County Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff, who has said he has no opinion about whether the Saints owner’s absence from mediation talks would support his daughter’s “manipulation narrative,” has told attorneys representing each side that they must either settle or go to trial by Feb. 1.
If neither happens, Rickhoff has said he could appoint someone to begin truly managing the trust instead of simply preserving the status quo, as the current receivers are doing. Such an appointment might not work out to the liking of either Benson or his daughter.
Meanwhile, mediation talks agreed to last month in a Benson feud-related lawsuit filed in New Orleans federal court have been set for mid-January, Wittmann said.
He said setting those talks was an easier process because Benson’s opponents in that case are not his relatives themselves. Rather, they are overseers of trust funds benefiting Renee and her children that contain noncontrolling shares of the Saints and Pelicans that Benson has proposed to replace with other assets, such as secured promissory notes.