When it comes to estate planning and elder law, mental capacity matters. In December 2014, Tom Benson announced plans to transfer future ownership of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans to his third wife, Gayle Benson, disinheriting his daughter, Renee LeBlanc, and his two grandchildren, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc. What do you supposed happened next? Immediately after, petitioners Renee, Rita, and Ryan filed suit challenging Benson’s new succession plans. The petitioners claimed that the 87-year-old Benson is mentally unfit to manage his personal or business affairs and assets totaling nearly $2 billion. In addition, the suit asked the court to have Benson produce medical records as well as having his mental capacity evaluated by an independent psychiatrist.
The petition reveals a series of incidents Renee, Rita and Ryan claim illustrate Benson’s deteriorating mental health which include the following:
- In the past year, Benson has been so heavily medicated that he has on several occasions forgot what the date was, forgot his age, where he was, and the day of the week.
- His memory has deteriorated so much that “on at least one occasion [Benson] failed to recognize his daughter, Renee.” He also failed to remember her birthday.
- When asked to name the President of the United States, he replied Ronald Reagan. On his second attempt, he guessed Harry Truman.
Despite the petitioners’ claims, however, on June 19, 2015, Orleans Civil District Judge Kern Reese ruled Benson competent.
Ohio Law. So how would a similar case play out in Ohio for Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslem or Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert? Just like in Louisiana, one of the legal requirements to make a testamentary gift in Ohio is that the individual must be of sound mind and memory. That is, the individual must have mental capacity.
To have mental capacity, an individual must have sufficient capacity to: (i) understand the nature of their act—i.e., they must actually know that they are executing a will or trust; (ii) understand the nature and extent of their assets; and (iii) appreciate their relationship to the members of their family.
Judge Reese in his ruling cited testimony from Benson’s nurse Takiah Daniels who testified that Benson “agonized over distancing himself from his family members, cried about it, read [the document disinheriting the petitioners] three times, and then decided to place his signature on the document” nevertheless. Moreover, the nurse “testified that no one stood over him while he signed [the new succession plan]. It was his decision.” Finally, although Benson did not testify in his competency trial, Judge Reese did interview Benson behind closed doors, with only the attorneys for both sides present. Reese in his decision wrote Benson “is able to make reasoned decisions as to his person and his property.”
The court rejected the argument that Benson had memory lapses as evidence of mental incapacity. Forget the fact that Dan Gilbert is 63 and Jimmy Haslem is 61. Even if either were Tom Benson’s age and had similar memory lapses, it is likely a judge in Ohio would make a similar conclusion regarding competency. The fact that an individual is “old,” physically frail or ill, and/or possesses a failing memory does not mean that they lack the requisite mental capacity and are unable to comprehend the nature of their act. Furthermore, the fact that a gift makes an apparently unfair or unequal distribution does not necessarily indicate that the individual lacked the mental capacity to make the gift. In fact, an individual may disregard family and friends of long standing and still have a valid will or trust.
That being said, it appears that an Ohio court would reach a similar decision that Benson possessed the legal capacity to change his succession plans dismissing his estranged heirs’ suit.
If you have a loved one who you suspect has capacity issues, please contact a member of the AlerStallings legal team to guide you through the process.