Animal Advocate Groups Sue for Helmsley’s Money

The estate of the late billionaire, Leona Helmsley, was estimated to be worth $5 billion upon her death in 2007, when she left it dog charities. In fact, four years prior to her death, Mrs. Helmsley wrote in her will that the distribution of her estate should go towards providing care for dogs. However, Mrs. Helmsley also added “and such other charitable activities as the trustees shall determine.”

In February this year, a judge in Manhattan determined that the trustees of Mrs. Helmley’s estate had sole discretion when it came to appropriately distributing the funds from her estate and that, therefore, Mrs. Helmsley’s entire estate did not have to ‘go to the dogs’, regardless of what was actually written in Mrs. Helmsley’s will!

Mrs. Helmsley also left $12 million to her Maltese Poodle, Trouble; which provoked many people to issue death threats against Trouble.

Yet another judge intervened and ordered that the amount of money that Trouble inherited would be reduced to a mere $2 million, even though Mrs. Helmsley’s estate pays $100,000 a year for security for Trouble.

Since then only $136 million has been paid, with most of that money being donated to medical centers instead of dogs. Roughly, $1 million was actually donated to animal welfare!

President of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle, stated:

“This is a trifling and embarrassingly small amount. Mrs. Helmsley’s wishes are clearly being subverted. We are extremely disappointed that less than 1 percent of the allocation announced is going to animal-related organizations, and only one-tenth of 1 percent is going to animal welfare organizations. We are in touch with the interested parties and are hoping to have a satisfactory resolution – a much larger percentage than 1 percent.”

The Human Society, A.S.P.C.A. and the Guide Dogs for the Blind shared the $1 million with 7 other animal rights and welfare organizations.

Even though this was an immediate public uproar about the misallocation of Mrs. Helmsley’s estate, the trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Mrs. Helmsley’s brother, Alvin Rosenthal, two grandsons, Walter and David Panzirer, one of her lawyers, Sandor Franke and her friend John Codey, issued the following statement:

“Throughout their lives, the Helmsleys were committed to helping others, through the innovations of medical research.”

Nowhere in the statement did they mention the debate over money being appropriately sent to animal welfare organizations.

Last week, the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Maddie’s Fund all filed a joint lawsuit in New York Surrogate’s Court against the trustees, on the grounds that only $100,000 of the estate went to animal welfare groups and insisting that Mrs. Helmsley clearly stated in her will that the majority of her estate should be directed to the care and welfare of dogs.

Their lawsuit is hoping to overturn the earlier ruling allowing the trustees of the estate to distribute Mrs. Helmsley’s funds as they deemed appropriate, even if that meant ignoring her wishes.

Board Chair of the ASPCA, Marsha Perelman, explained that:

“Just a fraction of the money involved in Mrs. Helmsley’s estate is a game-changer for animal welfare. The fate of dogs in this country could very well rest on the decision of this lawsuit, it is that critical.”

Prior to the previous ruling being initiated, no nonprofit animal groups were contacted nor allowed to place formal objections, and as a result of that ruling, less than 0.1% of Mrs. Helmslety’s trust was donated to dog-related animal charities.

President and CEO of the ASPCA, Ed Sayres, said:

“Dog fighting, puppy mills, pet homelessness and overpopulation are not $100,000 problems. But they’re not billion-dollar problems, either. Mrs. Helmsley understood the importance of animal welfare. She wanted her worldly estate to make our society better for dogs and animals, and if distributed as she intended, it definitely has the power to do so.”

Although the three animal welfare organizations are not actually seeking specific monetary grants, they are hoping that they can work alongside the Trustees in an advisory capacity. By doing so, the three groups are confident that they can help the Trustees to award funds to various needy animal charities throughout the USA.

“There has been a sea change in recent years in how we treat animals. It’s a shame that the Helmsley Trustees don’t understand or respect that change,” says Sayres.

Besides the immediate nature of Mrs. Helmsley’s funds not being awarded to dog charities, the three groups are hoping that the lawsuit will make lawmakers reconsider their stance on protecting the wishes of the deceased, especially if they are explicitly written in their will, as well as protecting charities from dishonorable trustees who blatantly ignore such bequeaths.

Photo Credit: David Paul Ohmer

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