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Ralph Wilson
(AP Photo/NFL Photos)

What Happens to the Bills Now?

Orchard Park, NY (WBEN) - With the passing of Ralph Wilson, many are wondering what will happen to the Buffalo Bills franchise. One financial expert says we don't know much because Wilson kept that private.

One thing we do know, says Glenn Wiggle of The Financial Guys, is that there is a trust in place.

"You can assume Mr. Wilson has everything set up very well as far as estate planning goes, so the team will go to a standalone trust to handle the affairs of the organization," explains Wiggle. That means day-to-day operations will not be interrupted. The trust could be long term. "Depending on the type, the trust can be single generation or multi-generation. He hasn't said a lot about it, so we're not sure but we'll learn more about it as more is revealed," says Wiggle.

Attorney Bill Savino says that while the team is in a trust, it will be under the control of people whom Wilson selected.

"The court would not be picking (the trustee). The typical situation is the person transfering the assets in to the trust selects the trustee before the trust is even started," Savino said. "The trustee gets picked by Ralph Wilson, so think of who he would want to run the Bills. My bet, I haven't seen the instrument, but my best guess would be Russ Brandon. That would be the natural pick, but for all we know, the trustee is a trusted friend or lawyer who gets instructions in the trust instrument."

Savino says that even if the trustee is someone with deep Buffalo roots, that won't mean much in the long term. "You can bet (NFL Commissioner Roger) Goodell won't let the team stay in the trust forever. This is not an answer to the Buffalo situation."

Estate taxes will be an issue no matter what. "The hope is that there's life insurance or other liquid asset," says Wiggle. "Life insurance is often an asset used to provide liquidity upon death, and that can provide money to pay estate taxes to keep businesses like the Bills intact."

Wiggle says it appears Wilson had prepared for the ongoing management of the organization without having to go through a probate court type of scenario.

While he lived, Wilson regularly ruled out the possibility of his family taking over the team after his death. The Bills will instead be sold, though that sale would likely be put off for a few years, with the franchise being operated through a trust.

The team's short-term future in Buffalo was also secured when the Bills signed a 10-year lease with the state and Erie County to continue playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Management issues were addressed on  Jan. 1 2013, when Russ Brandon was promoted to the position of team president, giving him full control of the franchise's day-to-day operations. 

The $271 million stadium deal includes a provision that essentially locks the Bills in for the next seven seasons. The franchise would have to pay $400 million if it decides to leave before 2020. The team then has the option of buying out the remaining three years of the lease for $28 million.

Several groups have expressed interest in purchasing the Bills, including one led by Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly who had discussed the possibilities before his recent cancer diagnosis. In November 2013, CBS's Jason La Confora reported that rock legend Jon Bon Jovi was also interested in the team- but the reports were shrugged aside by his publicist. And while the Bills in Toronto series struggled, there have always been rumours of interest from Rogers Communciations, the Canadian cable giant that owns the Rogers Centre and worked with the team during those recently cancelled "home" games there.

In October 2012, NFL Commissoner Roger Goodell addressed the future when asked about it by fans, at a Bills game meet and greet.

"I think the point of the question from fans is will we have a process and ability to keep the Bills here and be successful. I think that’s the hope of Mr. Wilson and that the team will continue to be successful here in Western New York, " Goodell said.

"I can't speculate what's going to happen in the future. But don't worry," Wilson said in 2008 only adding to the angst likely to build now after his death.

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