As I described in this article from February 2009, the trustees of the Leona Helmsley charitable trust asked the probate court in New York for permission to donate primarily to charities that helped people rather than dogs, despite some language in the trust that suggested she wanted her billions to benefits animal charities.
Specifically, the trust had a Mission Statement that included, as its first purpose “the provision of the care for dogs”. But it also gave the trustees discretion to benefit charities as they saw fit. This is a very important decisions for many charities (not to mention the people or animals they help) because we’re talking about several billion dollars.
This August, several different animal charities, including the Humane Society and American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, launched a legal challenge to the judge’s ruling to force the trustees to support animal charities. Reportedly, the trustees so far have donated very little to help dogs.
There was a big question whether these charities even had proper “standing” to bring this action (meaning whether or not they had the legal ability to challenge the judge’s ruling even though they were not named beneficiaries). So far, their challenge has been allowed to proceed.
In fact, a couple weeks ago, another animal charity — D.E.L.T.A. Rescue — filed legal papers in court asking to join in the fight. They issued a press release saying that Helmsley’s true wishes were to benefit dog charities and they complain the trustees are giving far too little to help dogs. They object that the trustees gave $136 million to help humans with only $100,000 helping an animal welfare mission.
The trustees of the Helmsley Charitable Trust have publicly responded to the allegations through their website, which you can read here. They feel that Leona Helmsley’s wishes were clear, and she really did want to primarily help people, not animals. They even point out that in the eight years between forming the charitable foundation and her death, Helmsley gave some $55 million to charities, but only one thousand dollars to an animal charity.
But this isn’t the only fight caused by Helmsley’s love of dogs. She left a $12 million trust fund for her dog, a Maltese named Trouble, while two of her four grandchildren got nothing. Those two filed a legal challenge to her trust, while the court was asked to slash Trouble’s inheritance.
What happened? And how can this story (and others) help those of us who don’t have billions? The new book, Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, has the stories and the information to benefit all families protect themselves from court fights . . . and help people know what to do when they’re in a fight. A free preview is available here.
Regardless of what happens with this fight about Leona Helmsely’s wishes, the moral here for the rest of us is that instructions in a will or trust need to be very clear so there isn’t confusion and fighting later. Did Leona want her trustees to donate more of her money to help dogs? Or did she really want them to decide for themselves? She could have been more specific in her trust and avoided this fight. The same rule applies to everyone planning how to pass their assets onto loved ones when they die.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at blog @ trialandheirs.com.