Photo by David Rentas/NY Post

The late hotel heiress Leona Helmsley may have been known as the “Queen of Mean,” but she had many fans in the animal welfare community, including such influential pet charities as the ASPCA, The Humane Society of the United States, and Maddie’s Fund.

Sadly, the combined clout of those groups wasn’t enough to win a court case that sought to honor Helmsley’s will, which clearly indicated that she wanted “a significant portion” of her multi-billion dollar estate to go to the dogs. Literally.

Pet Charities Go to Court

As a press release reporting the results of the case brought by the three groups against the trustees of the Helmsley estate in 2009 put it:

NEW YORK (May 3, 2011) – A New York County Surrogate’s Court has refused to allow animal welfare advocates to reopen proceedings concerning the charitable trust established by Leona Helmsley and direct a proportional share of the trust’s funds to the care of dogs in accordance with the wishes of the deceased hotel heiress. Of the more than $450 million the trust has already given away, only $100,000—about one-fiftieth of one percent—has gone to help dogs, despite Mrs. Helmsley’s explicit wishes that a significant portion of her trust be used for the care of dogs….

An appeal of the lower court’s ruling is expected.

How Helmsley’s Wishes Could Be Ignored by the Trustees

It was clear that the animal welfare groups got shafted but precisely how eluded me. So I asked an attorney friend.

She emphasized that she couldn’t determine the precise merits of the dispute without seeing the trust language but explained:

Trustees are allowed to petition the court to change the distribution of funds, particularly if the distribution vaguely benefits a cause rather than a specified organization.  This usually happens when:  (a) investments have caused the trust to have much greater assets than the trustor (Leona) could have anticipated; (b) to give so much money to the cause would be contrary to public policy; or (c) the trustor (Leona) was probably unstable when she made the bequest.

And, she inferred,

The court said that only named beneficiaries had the right to intervene in the proceeding.

In short, the fact that Leona Helmsley wanted to give any significant amount of money to animals — much less the vast amount that her estate ended up being worth —  made her sanity suspect. And it’s okay to ignore the wishes of crazy people.

This is, on a grand scale, exactly what I was talking about in a recent post, No Good Deed Goes Uncriticized: If you give money to charity you open yourself up to have your largesse second guessed.

Lessons to be learned

In a post written when the case first went to court, I noted that Leona Helmsley was not the ideal spokeswoman for her cause. I therefore suggest that if you want your final wishes to be honored:

  • Be specific in your bequests. The animal welfare groups would have had a much better case if they had been named.
  • Do not make your cause look frivolous. Leaving $12 million to a single dog — as Helmsley did for her Maltese, Trouble — while cutting your grandchildren off without a penny is not a good PR move.
  • Be nice to the little people. Then if you screw your greedy grandchildren out of a fortune you’ll have support from the community and your trustees won’t be able to ignore your wishes with as much impunity.

15 thoughts on “Pet Charities Lose: Where There’s a Will But No Way”

  1. I have to wonder about the advice Helmsley got when she first wrote her will. Surely any attorney advising her would have known how to create a more specific bequest (although that’s no guarantee her will would have survived the inevitable challenges). Or did he see an opportunity?

    Was it God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater where a lawyer said you could best make money by finding out where it was going to change hands and then getting in the middle of the transaction? I wonder if some of that is going on here. It sounds like the lawyers made out better than anybody.

    1. Unfortunately, vultures of all sorts always descend on old wealthy people, whether family members or professionals, so it’s difficult to know who’s at fault here. In this case, Helmsley made a lot of enemies and at the end she *was* rather confused, so even good advice might have been ignored.

      I think it’s important to make it known that not only dotty, curmudgeonly people care about animals. It might not change the trustees’ behavior, but it can make them aware that they are under scrutiny.

  2. I agree. There is definitely something suspicious about all of this. Her lawyers should have known better. Unless this was a deathbed will, scrawled on a napkin, they should have given better legal advice. The whole thing is strange.

    Though, naturally, anyone wanting to leave their fortune to animals is obviously insane. That right there proves she must have been out of her mind. It’s just a dog, after all. /sarcasm

    If I ever have anything to leave behind, other than some worn-out paperbacks, I will make sure to be very specific and to let my family know exactly how I feel.

    1. Given the implication that the size of the fortune was larger than anticipated, I suspect it was not a deathbed scrawl. But it’s so hard to second guess this whole affair as it unfolds. She might not have known which organizations were most worthy of her bequest and trusted someone to carry out her wishes by doing research, a someone who might have failed — or betrayed her.

      I’m not saying anything about your family members — or mine! — but I’ve heard too many horror stories about animals being taken to shelters by close relatives, despite the wishes of the deceased. It may be time for me to do a post about the special circumstances involved with pet trusts…

  3. Well, if the money was supposed to go to “the care of dogs”, the Humane Society of the United States doesn’t have any right to it anyway – that’s not what they do. At least the ASPCA does run shelters in NY, though I don’t have much respect for them either.

    Maddie’s Fund appears to be a worthy cause, it’s unfortunate they got lumped in with the other two.

    1. I agree with you about Maddie’s Fund — it seems like a wonderful organization, with much of its funding going directly to shelters, but they also fund veterinary schools, which could be interpreted as not going to the dogs either. I’m not a big fan of HSUS, either, but they do lobby for causes such as shutting down puppy mills and that definitely falls into the “care of dogs” category.

      1. We already have laws against puppy mills. Lack of laws is not the problem, lack of enforcement is. All the new HSUS/PETA laws do is make it harder for good breeders to continue to produce good dogs. People who run puppy mills will continue to do whatever they want until we actually go after them – we don’t need more laws that restrict the rights of those who ARE doing a good job to do that.

        Some of the recent “puppy mill legislation” says things like all dogs must be kept with unfettered access to the outdoors. How many people do you know who’s dogs have this? Sure as heck not mine (for their own safety). Should animal control officers be allowed to invade my home and confiscate my dogs just so we can feel better about puppy mills?

  4. My mama says that is good advice. It’s always good to think ahead and it seems silly not to know the nature and breadth of your net worth. Granted Helmsley was super rich, but that’s even less of an excuse. Most super rich people know where every dime is. Mama says regular folks know what their accounts are, the worth of their property generally. It’s a good idea leave set amount or percentage, don’t leave out relatives — leaving them $10 will let the court know that you didn’t forget them, but you disdain them. In short, you want to leave all sorts of evidence that you ARE of sound mind and not crazy. Nothing crazy about cutting out bratty or obnoxious relatives and leaving a chunk of cash to your favorite rescue.

    Just hopping by. Great advice.

  5. This is why I believe in trusts. Cover all this to begin with and leave a trust not a will for a probate court to go through. And if you are screwing relatives the whys and wherefores would be addressed to an extent in the document. No will is ever 100% safe. They all go to probate court which gives an opportunity for screwing up. Eliminate the probate court and you eliminate most of the opportunity for that. A trust is more expensive but there’s no reason why people shouldn’t be doing them except they get bad advice from attorneys who make a bigger percentage of the probate costs than the one time fee for the trust.

  6. Wow. That’s really sad. I had not heard that the trustees had decided not to follow her wishes. I wonder where the money is going to go then? Certainly it can’t go to the trustees. It would be interesting to see what they do. It really makes me mad that a person’s final wishes weren’t honored.

    Thanks for sharing this info Edie. I had no idea!

    1. From what I gather, a great deal of money has already been distributed to other charities — you know, the ones that are deserving because humans are involved. The whole thing is very frustrating, but maybe the ASPCA, HSUS and Maddie’s Fund will eventually prevail.

      Thanks for coming by!

  7. Jenni mentioned that a trust would help solve the problem. However, Leona Helmsley had a charitable trust.

    Charitable trusts are usually donated to a specific group, such as an alma mater. You receive, and any beneficiary of yours you designate would recieve after your death, the income from the trust until the both had passed.

    Usually, the trusts are managed by trustees (often a bank) and upon the death of all income beneficiaries the balance is given to the charity specified.

    Leona Helmsley’s problem seems to be her failure to name a specific charity. Sufice it to say, once you are in your grave you can no longer control your own money. Whoever or whatever inherits from you will spend their money on their own dreams (or failures).

  8. How frustrating this result is. Though I do agree – on the surface, it seems like whoever was giving her legal advice either wasn’t thinking of potential pitfalls or didn’t care. Though it’s also possible that LH herself wasn’t listening to the advice she was given and left it general. Who knows what went on behind the scenes – sometimes people choose to ignore even the best legal advice. In any event, it’s a shame that her wishes aren’t being honored.

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