NFL owner Tom Benson's estranged daughter, Renee Benson, will replace her billionaire father as trustee overseeing her late mother's assets in a settlement agreement approved recently by a probate court judge in Texas. My clients might well be wondering why it took the court to make this decision since they are aware that their revocable living trusts have provisions in place that unequivocally state when and how an incapacitated Trustee should be removed without the need for expensive court intervention. The answer to this question is found in the name of the trust. This trust, valued at approximately $1 billion, was set up in 1980 after Tom Benson's first wife died—following the probate of her will. Therefore, this testamentary trust is likely subject to court supervision as long as it exists.
Renee Benson is the beneficiary of the Shirley Benson trust which includes most of San Antonio's Lone Star Capital Bank, a 50% interest in her father’s five auto dealerships (the other 50% still held by Tom Benson), a stake in the large Benson ranch near Johnson City, a multimillion-dollar Lake Tahoe home, a private plane, cash and other real estate. Tom Benson’s only request was that the Texas judge include provisions in his ruling that would protect employees of the jointly-held auto dealerships pending a "reorganization" of those businesses. Seems reasonable.
The family rift seems to have begun in earnest after Tom Benson, age 88, decided to name his wife as the beneficiary of his estate rather than his daughter and grandchildren letting them know of his decision in an email to his daughter 2 days after Christmas. Thus began the battle over his competency with his daughter asking the court to find her father incapable of managing his empire (and therefore unable to change his estate plan). “I’d really want to tell him that I love him very much. And I really, really want some quality time with him to talk about old times,” Renee Benson told the Texas judge. “And I think it’s time to pass the baton. I just think it’s time. But I really want quality time with my dad.”
The Texas judge in making his ruling to allow Renee to serve as Trustee of the Shirley Benson Trust made it very clear that he is not ruling on Tom Benson's competent. This, he said, is for the Louisiana courts to determine. In fact, a Louisiana judge has already ruled in Tom Benson's favor declaring him competent to handle the affairs of his 2 billion dollar estate which includes ownership of the New Orleans Saints and the NBA Pelicans. However, Renee Benson and her children are currently appealing the ruling.
This is not just a cautionary tale for billionaires. Family squabbles such as this one happen more frequently than we would like to believe. Sadly, with such high expectations of what she and her children stood to inherited and the less than friendly relationship they had with Tom Benson's wife, Renee Benson and her children were likely never going to be satisfied with Benson's desire to change his estate plan. Perhaps with some appropriate counselling from an estate planning attorney, an acceptable compromise might have been reached. Close family relationships as this one was purported to be are far to meaningful to simply toss away because of money. We'd like to help; call us at 757-259-0707 to schedule your complimentary consultation.
Reference: San Antonio Express-News (February 19, 2016) "Tom Benson's daughter wrestles control of $1 billion trust in settlement and The Advocate (February 7, 2015) “Renee Benson: 'We were a very happy family for the majority of the time'”