Super Bowl Special: How to leave NFL tickets to heirs without getting sacked
By Gregg Greenberg featuring Asher Rubinstein
Passing down season tickets from generation to generation can get hairy. It’s often worthwhile to bring in an estate planner or attorney to make sure it’s a clean handoff.
There’s nothing more heartwarming than a parent passing down their football affiliation to their kids. A mutual love for an NFL team can often be the glue that holds a family together.
That said, passing down season tickets from generation to generation can get hairy at times — so much so that it’s often worthwhile to hire an estate planner or attorney to make sure it’s a clean handoff.
“Before you bequeath your season tickets to your favorite team, it is important to understand your investment,” said Matthew Nielsen, co-founder of Kingswood Family Office. “Your season ticket is a contract between you and the team, and when a seat license is involved it can be even more complicated. It can also cause hostility between heirs.”
FIGHTING FOR OLD D.C.
Perhaps the most famous cautionary tale about an intra-family ticket exchange gone sour is the true story of Suzanne Valenzuela, a hardcore fan of the Washington Redskins (now Commanders), who in 1987 took legal action against her son Todd, claiming he stole her season tickets, which she had purchased every year for the prior seven years.
In her civil suit, Valenzuela contended that Todd walked up to the stadium ticket window and picked up five of her tickets while she was on vacation. The Redskins at the time defended their part in the transaction, saying that Todd’s name was on the tickets, so they had no choice but to hand them over as per their stated policy.
Suzanne, meanwhile, said she listed her son’s name as the ticket holder to make it easier to pass them on to him if she died. In her view, that did not give him the right to unduly collect the ducats without her knowledge.
A judge eventually sided with Suzanne Valenzuela, leaving Todd on the outside of RFK Stadium looking in. Still, the wrangling over the Valenzuela tickets and the ensuing familial fallout led to more football teams clarifying their ticket exchange and transfer policies.
A PLAN FOR ALL SEASONS
Todd Valenzuela’s legal loss was a tough blow considering the long, long wait for Redskins season tickets at the time. While that’s not so much the case now in Washington as a result of the franchise’s recent struggles, there are plenty of NFL teams out there with long waits for season tickets. As a result, those tickets become an increasingly important part of estate plans, and not simply for their sentimental value.
As Neilsen notes, a season ticket, unlike a personal seat license, is a contract between the team and the purchaser, and the team can put whatever conditions it wishes on the deal. There are a number of NFL organizations that limit how ticket holders can transfer season tickets, both during life and at death. The Minnesota Vikings, for example, provide an official transfer form to avoid complications.
Complications do arise and in unexpected ways, Kingswood’s Nielsen says, recounting a story about his work on the estate of a football-crazed family whose patriarch died unexpectedly.
“With no spouse, he left his NFL season tickets to his two sons. Unfortunately, the team’s contract stated the tickets could only be left to one individual,” Nielsen said. “It was not the vacation homes, investments or cars that the boys wanted the most. It was the Sunday seats.” He said ultimately an attorney mediated a deal in which the contract went to the oldest son and the kids ended up splitting the home games equally.
Stipulations restricting ticket transfers to a single family member aren’t unusual, writes Inna Fershteyn, an estate planner and attorney. She also notes that some teams will only allow the tickets to be transferred to the surviving spouse, as long as proof is provided.
“The Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Padres, for example, request a copy of the deceased’s death certificate before permitting the surviving spouse to obtain ownership of the tickets. On the contrary, the Denver Broncos list more lenient regulations and permit transfers to a spouse, parent, sibling, or child. Only the executor may sign the transfer form and must prove the new ticket owner is truly an immediate family member. If the tickets are not transferred to an immediate family member that qualifies under the team’s regulations, the team reclaims them,” Fershteyn writes.
Attorney and financial author Mary Randolph writes that the Green Bay Packers also only allow one individual to own season tickets. So if a season ticket holder didn’t name one inheritor on the Packers-approved transfer form before death and leaves two children, the offspring must decide — with or without the help of a mediator — who gets the tickets.
“The Packers organization is willing to help family members negotiate — probably a good idea, given that the waiting list for season tickets reportedly has more than 80,000 names on it,” Randolph wrote. “If family members can’t agree, the tickets revert to the team. If there’s no surviving family member who is allowed, under team rules, to take over the season tickets, the tickets go back to the organization. So although more distant relatives may be crushed, the next person on the season ticket waiting list will be very happy.”
InvestmentNews writer Mark Schoeff Jr. adds a personal note: “When my now mother-in-law inquired about season tickets back in the 1970s, when my now-wife’s family moved to Green Bay, she was politely told by the Packer ticket office staffer to put her children on the waiting list and maybe one day they could buy season tickets.”
Put simply, for estate planning purposes, if the tickets are transferable at one’s death, then the transfer should be allowable whether by will to an heir, or to a trust. “One benefit of a transfer to a trust may be that the person transferring the tickets to the trust can create conditions whereby the trust makes the tickets available to the beneficiary heir. For instance, that the beneficiary has to attend a certain number of games with other members of the family,” said Asher Rubinstein, partner at Gallet Dreyer & Berkey.
“Trusts may also be written to protect the assets in the trust, including season tickets, from creditors of the beneficiaries, including in divorces,” Rubinstein added. Yes, divorces. We’re talking football here.
LICENSE TO CHEER
The transferability of NFL season tickets is one thing investors and estate planners need to keep in mind. Personal seat licenses, or PSLs, which are sometimes referred to as stadium builders licenses, or SBLs, which give the owner the right to buy and renew tickets, are another. Most NFL teams have some form of PSLs, which can run as high as six figures in some markets, including Dallas, Los Angeles and Super Bowl contender Philadelphia.
The ticket gets you into the venue, while the PSL allows you to sit in a particular seat. According to Rubinstein, the license itself is an asset owned by the ticket holder, therefore, seat licenses can also be transferred through a will or trust.
“I practice law in New York, so using my local teams as an example: The New York Giants allow the executor of an estate to request to transfer the personal seat license and associated ticket agreement to named individuals for a fee of $200 per transfer, with few restrictions,” Rubinstein said.
The thing to keep in mind is that PSLs only last for the lifetime of a stadium. In other words, were a team to leave its current facility, the PSL for that stadium usually becomes null and void once another stadium is built.
“That means an heir could have to shell out a lot of money just to retain the right to buy tickets, an expense that will come on top of what the tickets themselves cost,” said Michael Cordano, an investment advisor with Jackson Square Capital in San Francisco.