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.