Animal Welfare Groups Ask Court to Direct More of Helmsley's Billions to Help Dogs

Animal Welfare Groups Ask Court to Direct More of Helmsley's Billions to Help Dogs

Three animal welfare groups — the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Maddie's Fund — have filed suit in New York Surrogate's Court asking the court to intervene in the matter of Leona M. Helmsley's $5 billion estate, the New York Times reports.

Claiming that a surrogate judge used "faulty reasoning" in allowing the estate's trustees to disregard the late heiress's wishes before paying out millions of dollars in grants earlier this year, the three organizations are seeking to force the trustees to follow Helmsley's expressed desire to help dogs. The three groups also criticized the office of New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for issuing "a cursory and incorrect analysis" of the trustees' plan to pay out $136 million in grants this spring.

A "mission statement" drawn up by Helmsley in 2003 that was intended to lay the groundwork for the distribution of her wealth listed three charitable purposes: the care of dogs, "medical and health care services for indigent people, with emphasis on providing care for children," and other charitable interests. Helmsley, who died in 2007, subsequently revised the statement, dropping the second stated purpose altogether. But only $1 million of the $136 million in grants awarded by the trust this spring went to organizations having anything to do with animals. And of that amount, $900,000 was earmarked for groups that handle seeing-eye dogs, which serve humans, while the remaining $100,000 went to the ASPCA.

According to a statement on the Helmsley Charitable Trust Web site, the trustees have done nothing wrong: "Did Leona Helmsley intend for this charitable trust to focus on the care and help of dogs, rather than people? Absolutely not. Have the trustees of this vast fortune acted improperly and ignored Mrs. Helmsley's instructions? Again, absolutely not." According to Harvey P. Dale, professor of philanthropy and law at New York University, this kind of lawsuit faces significant hurdles because beneficiaries, potential beneficiaries, and donors generally do not have standing to intervene.

"There's no question this is a huge hill to climb," said Rick Avanzino, president of Maddie's Fund, the largest animal welfare group in the country and one of the signatories parties to the motion. "This phenomenal wealth is being redirected at the behest of male trustees who have chosen to ignore the direction and wishes of their benefactor."