Helmsley’s estate going to the dogs? Maybe not

By on February 26, 2009 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

She wanted her money to go toward dog protection work. There isn’t any doubt about it.

Yesterday afternoon, waiting to board a flight out of Tennessee, I received the disconcerting news that a Surrogate’s Court judge in New York had ruled that the trustees of the Leona Helmsley Charitable Trust were not legally bound to honor her explicit wish that her estate—estimated at $5-$8 billion—be devoted to helping dogs. The trustees and the New York State attorney general’s office both challenged the legality of a mission statement in which Helmsley made her wishes plain. 

I found it disturbing that the trustees lost no time in releasing a statement declaring victory. Friends and family members of the deceased hotelier, they proclaimed their satisfaction at a legal outcome precisely contrary to her wishes. Worst of all, in their statement the trustees for the estate made no mention of dogs on the list of areas in which they are planning to distribute funds. It was amazing to me, given the controversy implicit in nullifying the wishes of Mrs. Helmsley, that they failed to mention that animal welfare concerns would even get one thin dime.

Older dog
© iStockphoto

All along, this situation has given me a feeling of discomfort. Whatever the legal value of the mission statement Helmsley signed, it was the best and clearest sign of what she wanted to do with her accumulated wealth. While she lived, it gave her pleasure to know that her wealth would be used that way. In a free society, it seems to me, respect for a donor’s clearly stated wishes should be paramount, and it is galling that others can substitute their own judgments for the intentions of the decedent. This was a disappointing performance by the trustees and by Andrew Cuomo, the attorney general of New York, whose office filed a brief in support of the trustees’ position. If there was anyone who could have pressed for an approach that reconciled the legal issues surrounding Helmsley’s mission statement with her obvious desire to see her money do good for dogs, it was Cuomo. 

With one more bit of bad news on a tough day, this was a long flight home for me. I spent much of my time thinking about the tremendous good that the Helmsley bequest, well managed by a foundation or trust, could do. Every day, dozens of my colleagues at The HSUS, and thousands of animal care and law enforcement personnel are out there working to make this world a safer and better one for dogs. Promoting spaying and neutering to end homelessness. Pressing the case for shelter adoptions. Encouraging veterinary care and behavior training to ensure forever homes. Offering rewards in cases in which dogs are the victims of vicious cruelty. Helping bust animal fighters, whose ruthless and illegal abuse of dogs we are now working so hard to stem. Closing down the puppy mills that are responsible for so much animal misery. Working to reduce booming street dog populations throughout the world. Teaching the next generation the powerful lesson of kindness to dogs and other animals. To do these things, we need philanthropic support, and to have the large potential infusion of support now choked off by a handful of people swapping in their own opinions for the deceased person’s expressed vision is unacceptable.

It’s not the first time this raiding of an estate has occurred. A decade ago, trustees of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation parsed the language of Duke’s will to justify exclusion of animal welfare funding as a priority. And in the cases of the Helen V. Brach Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, both created from the estates of women who like Mrs. Helmsley and Miss Duke wanted to devote substantial funding from their estates to advance animal welfare, we’ve seen a steady dwindling of support for animal protection over the years. 

The only solace we can take is that the Court’s ruling confirmed that the Helmsley trustees do have the discretion and the power to achieve the above and other purposes relating to dogs, if they so choose. Let’s hope that they do, giving a thought to Mrs. Helmsley and her obvious intent. For our part, we’ll work hard to make sure that they don’t forget, and we’ll consider all avenues, in the courts and otherwise, to honor the intention of Mrs. Helmsley and not allow trustees to contravene directly the intentions of the decedent who has entrusted them. 

Companion Animals

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