In July 2015, a little more than a month after a New Orleans judge found he was mentally fit enough to handle his own affairs, Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson pressed a pen against each page of a last will and testament that repeatedly said neither his daughter nor his grandchildren would get another penny from him.
Despite an earlier defeat in court, Tom Benson's estranged former heirs could still challenge his will and try to gain control of the Saints, …
With Archbishop Gregory Aymond and an attorney as witnesses, he signed the document that spelled out how he wanted his affairs handled after his death.
Benson said he was leaving all of his property to a trust, the members of which weren't named in the document that was filed in court Friday evening, one day after Benson died at 90. His funeral is set for Friday.
The will sheds light on the pecking order of Benson's inner circle toward the end of his life. It makes clear he wanted his wife, Gayle Benson, to have sole voting power over New Orleans' NFL and NBA franchises — unsurprising, given the legal battle that had dominated much of Benson's life for the preceding months.
Benson signed his last will on July 27, 2015, or 37 days after Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese ruled against daughter Renee Benson and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. Two higher courts left Reese's ruling in place.
The trio had filed a suit saying the twice-widowed family patriarch was too enfeebled to oust them as heirs so he could leave control of his business empire entirely to his third wife.
Multiple sources involved with the Saints and Pelicans responded with the same word when asked how things will move forward following Tom Benson’s passing on Thursday: “Seamless.” Gayle Benson will now step in, and they are expecting things to operate as usual.
According to the will, if the trust formed the same day the document was signed ceases to exist, all of his property would go into another trust run by Gayle and his trusted lieutenant, Saints and Pelicans President Dennis Lauscha, with Gayle having exclusive voting power in matters concerning the sports franchises.
Lauscha was named "independent testamentory executor" of the succession.
The will also singles out Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and longtime Benson spokesman Greg Bensel for potential roles. They would serve as co-executors of Benson's estate if both Lauscha and Gayle Benson become "unwilling or unable" to serve in their capacities for any reason, with Loomis having the final say on any matters on which the two men disagree.
The document vividly illustrates how far outside Benson's inner circle his former heirs were exiled.
In one spot, the will notes, "I specifically provide that Renee Benson, Rita LeBlanc, Ryan LeBlanc, and all of their descendants shall have no interest in my succession whatsoever, and no legacy or other inheritance or benefit of any kind shall be paid to any of them under this will or otherwise."
The document asserts in another spot, "In no event shall Renee Benson, Rita Benson LeBlanc or Ryan LeBlanc serve as an executor or executrix of my succession."
However, at the time Benson announced in early 2015 that he was banishing the three from his life and his businesses, he promised that they "will be very well taken care of after I die." It is unclear exactly what assets the three are left with.
The will mentions no specific bequests to any causes, organizations or individuals.
Aymond, New Orleans' archbishop since 2009, witnessed Benson's endorsement of the will after years of friendship with the billionaire and his wife, both devout Catholics. The other witness, Michael Guarisco, is a law partner of the veteran attorney who prepared the document, Paul Cordes.
Louisiana law empowers relatives to contest wills on various grounds, including that the deceased was mentally incapacitated or subject to undue influence in making it. The attorney for Benson's jilted relatives, Randy Smith, has not indicated whether his clients intend to pursue that option.
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Benson's estrangement from Renee and her children stemmed at least in part from a heated confrontation between Rita LeBlanc and Gayle Benson in a luxury suite at a December 2014 Saints game.
Soon thereafter, Benson announced that he was cutting off all contact with his daughter and grandchildren and firing them from their positions as executives at his companies.
One of their responses was the lawsuit decided by Reese.
Another was a case that resulted in a settlement calling for Benson to hand over control of car dealerships and a family ranch in the San Antonio area to his daughter and grandchildren.
Yet another aspect of the dispute centered around valuable but non-voting shares in the Saints and Pelicans. They were among the business assets Benson sought to remove from trusts he set up to benefit Renee, Rita and Ryan. The case was settled under confidential terms, though Benson couldn't remove the shares in question from the funds unless he replaced them with something of equivalent value.
Benson personally held all the controlling shares in his sports franchises while he was alive.
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Staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this report.
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