Saints owner Tom Benson, daughter Renee Benson settle battle over control of family trust fund in Texas

Three days before Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson was scheduled to be privately questioned by his estranged daughter Renee’s attorneys, he and Renee reached a settlement Friday afternoon in their year-old battle over control of a family trust fund in Texas, according to an attorney in the case.

Terms of the settlement are confidential, said Bennett Stahl, a San Antonio attorney who represented Renee Benson in the dispute. But he said the agreement renders a scheduled Feb. 1 trial moot.

The trust fund at the center of the case was set up to benefit Renee Benson, with her father as its administrator. It was created by Renee’s mother — Tom Benson’s first wife, Shirley Benson, who died in 1980.

Renee Benson sued for control of the trust fund at about the time her father revealed a year ago he had decided to cut her and her children out of the family business empire.

The trust includes shares in a family-owned bank as well as car dealerships and real estate. It does not have any of the nonvoting shares in Benson’s sports teams that are involved in a separate lawsuit pending in federal court in New Orleans.

In filing her suit, Renee Benson accused her father of making decisions that damaged the fund, such as missing routine bill payments. She asked that he be permanently removed as the overseer of the trust.

Bexar County, Texas, Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff temporarily suspended Benson as overseer of the trust in February, and he appointed two receivers to manage the trust until the dispute was resolved: former San Antonio Mayor Phil Harberger and estate attorney Arthur Bayern.

Tom Benson, 88, defended his management of the trust, saying he had loaned a significant amount of his own money to it and was owed at least $17 million by it.

Friday’s settlement came a little more than a month after Benson offered to resign as the trust’s steward as long as a neutral party was appointed to that role. It also came after Hardberger and Bayern issued a report to Rickhoff saying they did not believe the trust owed Benson any money.

Rickhoff had recently ordered Tom Benson to face questioning by Renee Benson’s attorneys in San Antonio. The questioning originally was supposed to have started by Thursday of this week, but that was postponed to Monday.

Friday’s agreement makes Monday’s deposition unnecessary.

Benson’s side objected to his being questioned by his daughter’s attorneys, and mediation talks didn’t begin until shortly before Rickhoff handed down his order.

Since Benson cut off his relatives from his businesses and his life last year, the only person to directly question him in a legal setting has been Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese, who presided over a separate front of the complex family feud.

After Benson announced his plan to eventually leave control of his business empire to Gayle Benson, his third wife, rather than to Renee and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, as long planned, the three of them asked Reese to declare that the family patriarch was mentally unfit to make that kind of momentous decision. They alleged he was being manipulated by others while he was in deteriorating mental and physical health.

Benson’s side, led by attorney Phil Wittmann, has consistently denied his relatives’ claims, and this summer Reese found Benson to be mentally competent. He reached that decision after questioning the billionaire privately as well as holding a closed-door trial in June to hear from the relatives and three doctors who had examined Benson.

Represented by New Orleans attorney Randy Smith, the relatives are appealing Reese’s decision, arguing that their side was improperly denied a chance to question Benson before the case was decided. Their appeal was orally argued on Thursday, and a ruling is expected within the month.

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