A Jefferson Parish judge on Thursday dismissed a legal challenge to the last will that auto mogul Ray Brandt signed weeks before his death in 2019, following testimony from widow Jessica Brandt and his wife of housekeeping who shed little light on claims that it was done inappropriately.
Barring a successful appeal, District Judge Lee Faulkner’s decision will strip Jessica Brandt of control of an empire of car dealerships and collision centers across Louisiana and Mississippi, the centerpiece of a field valued at over $300 million.
Jessica Brandt has held the reins as CEO of Ray Brandt Auto Group since her namesake died of pancreatic cancer aged 72 in November 2019.
It was only after his death that she learned that the will and a trust amendment he had signed weeks earlier on the couch of his Old Metairie mansion directed that his entire estate be placed in a trust under control of Marc Milano, principal of Archbishop Rummel High School.
Ray Brandt’s 2019 will also feature a “no contest” clause that could weed out legal challengers. The probated will challenge was filed by Todd Dempster, who works under Jessica Brandt as the automotive group’s chief operating officer. Jessica Brandt, however, funded the Dempster lawsuit with payments from the estate, she testified Thursday.
In denying a motion to set aside the 2019 will, Faulkner dismissed a claim by Jessica Brandt that a witness to the signing, former Orleans Parish Criminal Court Judge Terry Alarcon, was in the courtroom. bath at the time. Alarcon died, and in her testimony, Jessica Brandt admitted that she could not be sure of the documents that were signed at that time.
The legal battle pitted Jessica Brandt against her two adult grandchildren, Alexis and Zachary Hartline, for control of the estate. The huge estate also includes Pascal’s Manale, the famous Italian-Creole restaurant on Avenue Napoléon that Brandt bought in his last days.
The fight included threats of deportation, allegations that Jessica Brandt was financially wrongful and a defamation lawsuit she filed against Milano. The high-stakes succession fight was heading for a settlement over the summer, but those talks fell through.
Under one of three wills Faulkner put into play last year, Jessica Brandt will receive income from the estate until her death, when the trust will be dissolved and its assets divided among the Hartlines. Jessica Brandt admitted at the helm to have fought to keep control of the concessions until then.
Dempster’s lawyer, Philip Franco, argued that Brandt’s 2019 will included an ‘attestation’ clause which was fatally flawed because it did not state that Brandt signed it in the presence of a notary. or with two witnesses.
Faulkner initially agreed. Last year, he rejected Brandt’s will from 2019 and a precedent from 2015 for the same reason. The decision, later overturned on other grounds, appeared to leave Jessica Brandt in charge under an earlier will.
But the Louisiana Supreme Court, in a series of decisions, has discouraged casting wills on technical defects when the intent is clear and there are no signs of fraud. On Thursday, Faulkner appeared to heed those decisions, though he didn’t specify his order.
Faulkner dismissed an attempt by Dempster to cast doubt on Ray Brandt’s intent, refusing to allow testimony on alleged minutes of a corporate meeting at Brandt’s mansion on the day he signed the will. The lawsuit, produced months later, claims he insisted that Jessica Brandt still run the car business.
“We were very pleased with today’s decision by Judge Faulkner confirming Ray Brandt’s last wishes. This process has taken far too long, and we are ready to take the next step to close this case,” said Randy Smith, attorney for the Hartlines.
Faulkner ordered an account of the estate of Jessica Brandt, but Franco later said Dempster would appeal, saying the case was “fraught with several complicated legal issues.”
Appeals courts have overturned three of Faulkner’s decisions since the legal challenge began.