“The statistic,” Rickhoff said, “is that everybody in America who is 85 has some dementia.”
Rickhoff’s stance on octogenarians is questionable — a 2014 report by the Alzheimer’s Association stated only 38 percent of Americans 85 and older suffer from dementia — but it’s instructive to his recent handling of the estate of San Antonio and New Orleans billionaire Tom Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans.
Rickhoff declined Thursday to answer questions about the Benson case.
On Monday, Rickhoff suspended Benson, 87, from running a family trust, and appointed two receivers — former Mayor Phil Hardberger and estate lawyer Art Bayern — to oversee his affairs. Rickhoff’s decision came in response to a legal challenge from Benson’s daughter, Renee.
It was the kind of move rarely seen in probate cases. Gerry Beyer, a Texas Tech University professor, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 30 years of studying probate law, he only had heard of a dozen or so cases in which a judge appointed a receiver.
He added that most probate judges take smaller, more deliberate steps, such as ordering a trustee to reverse a specific action.
Rickhoff’s move spurred some courthouse conjecture that the veteran judge had found a way to punt on the case. After all, over his 14 years on the probate-court bench, Rickhoff never has been accused of working too hard.
As this column reported last October, he spent 65 work days last year away from the court, including a year-ending six-week vacation to Australia and New Zealand.
In 2006, Rickhoff waited until after his re-election to announce that he no longer intended to handle the probate court’s mental health docket, because he wanted to reduce “angst and conflict” in his life.
It’s a common perception at the county courthouse that Rickhoff, 70, has viewed the probate-court seat as an easy way to add a county pension to the state pension he earned from his stint as a judge on the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals.
Phil Ross, a local attorney who unsuccessfully challenged Rickhoff in the 2014 Republican primary, has been one of the judge’s most dogged courtroom thorns.
Rickhoff has been forced to recuse himself from five cases handled by Ross, including one involving Mary Dahlman, a woman in her mid-60s who was put in charge of a $20 million trust from her deceased mother, and whose mental competence Rickhoff questioned.
Ross only has observed the Benson case from a distance, but said, “It appears to me that Mr. Benson is not getting a fair shake in Judge Rickhoff’s court.”
Ross added, “When I got (Rickhoff) reversed a couple of times on appeal, part of the rationale for reversing him was that there wasn’t any evidence on the record to support his decisions, because he has a habit of conducting business behind closed doors — avoiding trials and not having hearings where any evidence is submitted.”
Perhaps because he knows his reputation precedes him, Rickhoff seemed to take pains, in a four-page addendum to his Benson ruling, to explain his thinking this week. He called out for Benson family unity and said he wanted to avoid “an endless Dickensian kerfuffle.”
A local probate expert I spoke to suggested that, given the red flags about Benson’s recent change of behavior and his Jan. 7 transfer of $25 million from Lone Star Capital Bank of San Antonio to Frost Bank, the best course of action was to appoint receivers while a medical examination of Benson is conducted. That’s the way the case is moving forward, thanks in part to a Tuesday ruling by a New Orleans judge who ordered the medical exam. (Continue Reading)
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Rickhoff’s probate mantra: Don’t trust anyone over 85