The Helmsley Controversy Continues…

This one’s for Professor Crawford…

The Washington Times reports today that Leona Helmsley’s estate trustees have allocated $136 million of the trust’s first dole-out of $137 million (out of an estimated total of $5 billion) to medical charities rather than dog charities — the latter being what some animal advocates feel her will indicated she wished. 

The content of her will makes it difficult to discern her ultimate wish. The will created a trust fund (in addition to the notorious pet trust created for her dog, Trouble, the amount of which was drastically reduced by a judge in a separate and equally controversial situation invoking issues of animal rights and animal law).

The will’s mission statement, drafted 4 years prior to her death, stated that her two priorities for estate distribution were helping the poor and caring for dogs. However, she later struck the first priority and added to the second the phrase “and other such charitable activities as the trustees shall determine.”

This past February, a surrogate court judge ruled that the trust’s trustees have sole authority to determine where the funds are allocated… yes, that sounds about right. Yesterday, the trustees chose to distribute the funds such that only a fraction ($1 million of the first $137 million bundle) went to animal advocacy organizations, while most went to medical research programs benefiting humans.

The response from the Humane Society of the United States — one of the animal advocacy organizations selected to receive a tiny portion of the funds — is that it is “a trifling and embarrassingly small amount” and that “Mrs. Helmsley’s wishes are clearly being subverted.”

And so we find ourselves again embroiled in a national debate over the priority that ought to be given to man’s best friend. Whereas the scandal revolving around Helmsley’s dog Trouble invoked people’s feelings about the role of companion animals in one’s family, this debate pushes people one step further: to consider the value we ought to assign dogs who are not part of our families; not our best friends. This raises the questions of how much priority we should assign, as a society, to canine protection and advocacy, and how we feel about those who think these are, or ought to be, a high priority.

Although in this case, canine interests are clearly trumped by human interests, dogs and all animals gained a little ground today simply by being thought of in a serious and legally discerning manner. That attitude, on the part of executors, trustees, judges, attorneys, and society at large, is what is required for all animals’ interests to advance within the legal world.

-Suzanne McMillan


One Response

  1. Given the notoriety of the testator who among other things opined that only fools pay taxes (before her conviction for not doing that), we might view this as simply her befuddled failure to get her wishes clearly expressed in a binding document. Of course there is always the possibility that her attorney was either in over his/her head or, possibly, that the client could not be counseled.

    Historically, English and later American law placed limitations on charitable bequests. The reasoning was that the Church (some church) provided for impecunious survivors and that a deceased’s estate should largely go to his or her own rightful (as the law determined it) heirs.

    I see no valid policy reason today why a testator should be restricted in any way from bequeathing any or all of an estate to any charity including those committed to animal welfare or animal rights. I don’t think I’d go along with a devise to Al Quaeda.

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