Draw a clock. Write a check. Explain the difference between $100,000 and $1 million.
It all seems simple enough. But the future of Louisiana’s most lucrative business empire may ride on whether Tom Benson, owner of the Saints and Pelicans, is capable of such tasks now that a judge has called for a psychiatric evaluation to assess the billionaire’s mental fitness.
Experts say it is hard to know exactly what Benson’s evaluation will entail. Lawsuits like the one that his estranged relatives have filed against him do sometimes involve similar exams, but no two cases are exactly the same. There is no standardized test for Benson to pass or fail, the experts say.
Still, professionals who have been involved in similar cases say Benson will be doing a lot of talking with the psychiatrists — in this case, three of them — tasked with gauging the 87-year-old’s mental abilities.
What those psychiatrists will be asking, said Dr. David Naimark, a forensic geriatric psychiatrist in San Diego, is: “Does he have all the information relevant to this particular business transaction, and is he not operating out of false pretenses from an information perspective?”
In other words, the psychiatrists in Benson’s case are likely to spend at least some of their time with him asking for specifics about the decision that led to these proceedings in the first place: Benson’s move last month to install his wife, Gayle, as his successor, cutting out his daughter Renee and grandchildren Rita and Ryan LeBlanc.
They may ask Benson to tell them whom he wants his businesses to go to and why, prodding him to say whether anyone else has influenced his decisions.
Then, Naimark continued, “If he has the information, does he have the mental capacity to understand and appreciate the information?”
To arrive at an answer, Benson’s evaluators will likely give him simple tasks aimed at demonstrating how his thought process is functioning. They may ask him the difference between some large numbers, or see if he can fill out a check without help.
Baton Rouge lawyer Linda Melancon, who specializes in estate planning and administration, said she once had an elderly client who was asked to draw clocks with their hands positioned at different times.
Melancon said there’s no truly standard evaluation because each subject is unique, but examiners’ main purpose is to see if the person in question “can make decisions about their person or property.”
Naimark said evaluators are also likely to be on the alert for anyone trying to insert himself into the process. He said any attempt to interfere with the evaluation could indicate that someone has been putting pressure on the subject to make certain decisions.
If Benson can convince his evaluators that he is competent to handle his own affairs, he gains the obvious upper hand against his estranged relatives. They want Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese to rule that Benson’s decision to cut them out of his succession plans was invalid because the people around him have been able to manipulate an octogenarian whose mind is slipping.
If Benson cannot convince his evaluators of his mental fitness, the judge has several options.
He could declare that Benson is, in fact, incapable of making his own decisions about his business interests, something known as a limited interdiction. In that case, Benson would lose his right to decide by himself the future ownership of the Saints, Pelicans and other properties he owns in Louisiana and Texas. Reese would appoint a person or a group of people to make all of Benson’s business decisions for him.
Or Reese could go a step further and declare Benson can’t make decisions about either his businesses or his health, which is known as full interdiction. It is sometimes referred to in the legal community as the “civil death penalty.”
Benson, in that case, not only would lose the power to make decisions about his assets, he also could no longer do basic things like drive a car, decide on his own medical treatment or leave the state without permission. Reese would appoint someone who would essentially be a caregiver for Benson to make all his decisions for him.
However, even if Benson is declared unable to make decisions to one degree or another, it still leaves open the question of who exactly would do that for him.
His former heirs say it should be his daughter, Renee, in part because she is Benson’s next of kin.
Benson says it should be Gayle Benson as well as Saints and Pelicans President Dennis Lauscha, who took over Benson’s power of attorney in January.
Ultimately, it is up to Reese to decide. He has asked for the panel of doctors who will evaluate Benson to be in place by Feb. 25, and he wants them to report their findings to him by March 13.