This week, the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Maddie’s Fund, filed a petition arguing that Leona Helmsley’s trustees disregarded her wishes to use her multibillion-dollar estate to help dogs. In February, a judge ruled in the trustees’ favor, allowing them to have sole discretionary power to decide which charities would benefit from her estate. The three organizations are calling their lawsuit the most significant financial litigation in animal welfare history.
The topic has been a heated one since Leona Helmsley, wife of real estate mogul, Harry B. Helmsley, passed away in August 2007 with a fortune estimated at $5 billion to $8 billion. Most notably was the $12 million that Leona left to her own Maltese, Trouble, that later was reduced to $2 million by a judge.
Animal lovers rejoiced when it was revealed that four years earlier, Leona drafted a mission statement for her trust that listed providing for the care of dogs as a priority and other charitable causes could be determined by the trustees. Unfortunately, the last part left a gaping loophole for the current events.
Furthermore, since the mission statement was never incorporated into her will or the trust documents, it wasn’t legally binding. Though her intentions seem clear, less than one percent of the trustee’s grants announced in April benefits animal related organizations. Of that amount very little went to animal welfare. Ten percent went to the ASPCA and 90 percent to guide dog organizations.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, there’s a long history of disputing animal trusts. In the later half of the 19th century, a bequest of a $100,000 estate to the ASPCA was contested by the donor’s heirs and a court ruled in their favor.
More recently, tobacco heiress, Doris Duke, left her money to support the arts and the prevention of cruelty to animals or children. But because of that “or,” her trustees chose to allocate the money to only children.
When it comes to a trust or will, like many others, I assume that my loved ones know how I feel about animals. It’s unbelievable to me that Leona’s trustees would ignore her seemingly obvious intentions and has made me think about how specific you have to be, no matter how much you trust those around you.
Hopefully with the attention this case has received, more people will be careful about how they draft their wills and trusts.