Bulk of Leona Helmsley's Fortune May Go to Dogs

A two-page "mission statement" signed by hotelier and real estate magnate Leona Helmsley before her death last August specifies that her charitable trust, valued at between $5 billion and $8 billion, be used for the care and welfare of dogs, the New York Times reports.

While Helmsley's intent is apparent in the document, it is not clear whether the money will be used as specified. A provision of the document allows Helmsley's trustees to use their discretion in distributing the money, and some lawyers say the statement may not be legally binding, given that its directions were not incorporated into Helmsley's will or trust documents. Longstanding laws, however, favor adherence to a donor's intent, and the mission statement is the only clear expression of Helmsley's charitable intentions, which could make it difficult for her trustees — as well as the probate court and state charity regulators — to ignore the document.

Helmsley created and signed the document in 2003 to establish goals for the trust, which represents virtually her entire estate. The goals outlined in the document originally included helping indigent people and providing for dogs, though Helmsley, who was notorious for her impatience with people, removed the former in 2004.

The five executors of Helmsley's will — who are also the trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust — have fretted about the public outcry that disclosure of its terms might incite. News last year that the biggest named beneficiary of Helmsley's will was her dog, Trouble, led to just such an outcry. But they cannot sit on the assets much longer without raising questions from the attorney general's office, which oversees the use of charitable assets in New York State.

As a result, the trustees recently hired a philanthropic advisory service to help them find a way to remain true to Helmsley's intentions while at the same time pursuing broader charitable goals with the money. At least one judge has already demonstrated a willingness to be flexible, cutting the trust fund left to Helmsley's dog from $12 million to $2 million and awarding $12 million to two of Helmsley's grandchildren who were left out of her will.

Stephanie Strom. "Helmsley, Dogs' Best Friend, Left Them Billions." New York Times 07/02/2008.