Helmsley Estate a Matter of Trust

By on August 11, 2009 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

The animal welfare movement has been the victim of the greatest attempted heist of resources in its history. The culprits: the five male trustees of the Harry and Leona Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Leona Helmsley, the late real estate and hotel magnate, left more than $5 billion to her charitable trust. Mrs. Helmsley stated explicitly in her instructions for her estate that “special emphasis” should be given in the trust’s allocation of grants for “purposes related to the provision of care for dogs.”

I have moderated my statements until now as we attempted to reach out to the trustees; however, it is now clear that they have every intention of contravening Mrs. Helmsley’s express intentions and leaving the animals in the lurch.

The HSUS, the ASPCA, and Maddie’s Fund are trying to correct this wrong, and leaders from the three groups just stepped out of a press conference in New York City announcing our legal action to honor the intentions of Leona Helmsley.

Brown and white pit bull dog in shelter
© iStockphoto

I am outraged by the trustees’ deliberate misdirection of these funds. The largest foundation for animals, Maddie’s Fund, has assets of $300 million. Helmsley’s estate is some 20 times larger than that, and has the potential to be the greatest game changer in the history of the animal protection movement. Imagine what these resources could do for animal shelters and rescue groups in the United States and abroad.

Technically, the three groups filed a motion to intervene and vacate a legal action that took place without any dog welfare organizations being fairly represented. The trustees went to court asking that they not be “bound by the expression of Decedent’s wishes…” New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo failed to step in and prevent this misdirection of funds. In fact, his office provided an unwarranted and legally questionable assist to the Helmsley trustees by writing a brief that effectively said they can do whatever they want with the money.

The end result was a judicial opinion that was not only legally wrong, but rendered without representation for the one group of charitable beneficiaries that Mrs. Helmsley specifically identified. The trustees have seized on this flawed opinion to deny monies to dog welfare.

All of this is occurring while shelters are struggling to keep their doors open and to deal with the pet overpopulation crisis. Dogfighting remains a widespread social phenomenon, victimizing hundreds of thousands of dogs a year. There are more than 10,000 puppy mills churning out dogs for the pet trade and keeping breeding animals in terrible conditions. And throughout the world, there are thousands of communities that lack any animal sheltering presence whatsoever. Mrs. Helmsley’s monies, properly administered and allocated, could save the lives of millions of dogs.

Displaying their hostility to the very subject, the trustees thus far allocated less than .1 percent of the grants this year to dog welfare. Instead, the trustees appear to be using someone else’s money to advance their own agendas, for instance allocating $19 million to four organizations (not dog welfare-related) in South Dakota, where one of the five trustees lives.

And we're not arguing that the money should come to our own groups, although we'd be pleased to put some of it to work in our campaigns to stop puppy mills, dogfighting, and pet overpopulation. We're hoping the majority of the funds will go to animal shelters and rescue groups around the world, to support their much-needed work to help dogs. Grant-making should be done in a way that is consistent with the terms set by Mrs. Helmsley—to honor the fact that she wanted her own money to be used for dogs.

Our work in the Helmsley case demonstrates the very principles on which The HSUS was founded—to take on the big fights that local humane societies have neither the reach nor the resources to tackle. 

But, let’s be clear: it's a larger issue than just animal welfare. If the Helmsley trustees get away with this heist, then every future donor who has scrimped and saved through a lifetime to leave money to the cause of their choice should be rightly concerned about their wishes being defied after they pass away. Why save and create a trust instrument at all if an indifferent group of trustees are going to do whatever they want with the money?

And every charity, which depends on the proper allocation of resources from estates and trusts for their operations, should also be deeply concerned. This hijacking of resources can happen to any cause or social concern, and that’s one reason why we intend to fight this battle every step of the way.

Animal Rescue and Care, Companion Animals

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