By John Simerman
The Louisiana Supreme Court this week dismissed a legal attack on the last will and testament that auto dealership mogul Ray Brandt signed weeks before his death in 2019, stalling his widow, Jessica Brandt, in her fight for control of his massive estate.
The court cast aside a January ruling by 24th Judicial District Judge Lee Faulkner, who invalidated Ray Brandt's 2019 will and a previous one that he wrote in 2015, citing a technical flaw in how both documents were notarized. Faulkner settled on a 2010 will.
Tuesday's decision marked a setback for Jessica Brandt, now CEO of Ray Brandt Auto Group. For a year, she has pressed to nullify her husband's probated 2019 will while steering clear of a “no contest” clause that could cut her out of it.
Ray Brandt, who was childless, left his estate to her grandchildren, Alexis and Zachary Hartline, while directing that Jessica Brandt receive the income from it until her death.
But in his dying days, Brandt removed his wife as the trustee over an estate valued at more than $300 million, replacing her with Marc Milano, the principal of Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie.
At stake is control over an empire of auto dealerships and collision centers that employs hundreds across Louisiana and Mississippi. Other assets in the balance include Pascal’s Manale, the beloved Creole-Italian restaurant that Ray Brandt bought days before he died of pancreatic cancer.
Milano claims that Jessica Brandt has stymied the transfer of the estate’s assets into a trust that Ray Brandt set up for the Hartlines, to be overseen by Milano. He also accuses Jessica Brandt of financial malfeasance and of stalling his requests for an accounting. Attorneys for Jessica Brandt reject those allegations, the specifics of which remain under seal.
Rather than challenge her husband's 2019 will directly, Jessica Brandt claimed impartiality, asking Faulkner to decide which of three wills was the valid one. The judge obliged, but an appeals court panel said he couldn't rule without a "direct" challenge. The appeals court did not opine on the validity of the will itself.
The Supreme Court upheld the appeals court ruling in a 6-1 voted.
Randy Smith, an attorney for the Hartline siblings, said they “have always believed the courts should honor Ray Brandt’s last will," adding that it was notarized and signed in front of two witnesses. "This is a big step toward his last wishes being respected.”
But David Sherman, an attorney for Jessica Brandt, insisted that "this decision doesn't change anything. There are still other appeals pending."
Indeed, another legal challenge was heard last week by a state Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal panel. Todd Dempster, the chief operating officer of Ray Brandt Auto Group, claims a right to challenge the will of his former boss, though he is not a beneficiary, relative or descendant of Ray Brandt.
Faulkner ruled last year that Dempster didn't have standing for a challenge.
Should he lose, Jessica Brandt would face a nettlesome decision: whether to lodge a direct challenge herself to her husband's 2019 will, given the risks. Sherman declined to comment on that scenario.
Jessica Brandt has expressed concern over Milano’s plan to run the dealerships and the potential that automakers will abandon the Brandt brand. Milano has insisted that Ray Brandt was clear about his wishes for his wife to cede control to the high school principal.
Milano plans to "retain the best qualified individuals to oversee the management and operations of these dealerships and businesses," said his attorney, Tim Madden.
This week's ruling prompted Madden to urge Jessica Brandt to "acquiesce" to placing the estate’s assets into the trust to fulfill “the desires and wishes of her deceased husband.”
“Ray Brandt said what he wanted,” Madden said, referring to the 2019 will.
Acquiescence, however, appears unlikely, given the rift between Jessica Brandt and Milano, once fast friends.
In August, Milano filed a motion to remove her as independent executrix overseeing the succession, claiming she has “repeatedly breached her fiduciary duties and mismanaged succession assets.”
In turn, Jessica Brandt’s attorneys have asked Faulkner to level sanctions against Milano and Madden. They say the bid to remove her amounts to “continued harassment and abusive litigation.”
Jessica Brandt has previously sued Milano for defamation. Faulkner has scheduled a Nov. 5 hearing date that may address the allegations of financial impropriety.
The dispute has torn apart a family that once lived together in an Old Metairie compound. Jessica Brandt attempted this year to evict her grandchildren.
In May, Faulkner granted the Hartlines an allowance from the estate to support them until Jessica Brandt dies and the trust dissolves. She objected, and last month, the appeals court agreed, overturning Faulkner again. It found the Hartlines weren't entitled.