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Court tells Leona Helmsley trustees "no need to dog it"

Trust attorneys come across all kinds of strange wishes.  Many people like leaving money for pets; sometimes they take their animal fondness to absurd levels.

Leona Helmsley was known to all as the “Queen of Mean.”  She gained fame in the late 1980s when she was charged with -– and found guilty of -– tax evasion.  She reportedly felt that “Only the little people pay taxes.”  Leona_Helmsley

Maybe she regretted her ways in later life.  After she died in 2007, it was publicly revealed that her trust left the bulk of her vast estate -- reportedly worth four to eight billion dollars -- to charity.  Or more specifically, to benefit dogs.  She left her own dog, a Maltese named Trouble, the biggest share, with a $12 million dollar trust fund.  Earlier court proceedings reduced this amount considerably.

Recently, a probate judge in New York answered the remaining big question -- did she really want to leave all of that money for dogs alone?  Her trust's mission statement directed that her money be used for the care and welfare of dogs.  Initially, she wanted to help indigent people first, and dogs second.  But Helmsley apparently changed her mind (maybe the "little people" didn't deserve her money after all) and removed the part about helping poor people and left only instructions to benefit dogs.

Luckily for the needy people of this world, Helmsley's trust included enough language that the judge ruled the trustees could exercise discretion and use the money for other charitable purposes, dogs and non-dogs alike.  You can read the judge's decision and the New York Times' article about it.

This does raise interesting issues about respecting a person's wishes.  Helmsley truly did want to help dogs, and now it is completely up to her trustees how much to benefit dogs or not.  Conceivably, they could use all the money for people, and ignore Helmsley's directive to care for dogs altogether.  It was her money after all, and if she wanted to benefit dogs with it, shouldn't she have that right?

It would have been really interesting if Helmsley's trust had instructed that the money could only be used for dogs.  Hopefully, her trustees will use the money wisely and help both people and dogs in need.

This story also has a lesson.  When you create a will or trust, make sure your wishes and instructions are very clear.  If you want your trustee or executor to follow strict instructions, your will or trust needs to say so.  If you include discretionary language, then it may give the person you choose to administer your affairs the power to spend your money in ways you may not have liked.

Some attorneys use boilerplate language that may give your trustee or executor more discretion than you'd want.  Read your documents carefully, and make sure you discuss with your estate planning attorney how much freedom to make choices you wish to include.

Posted by:  Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs:  Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law.  You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.

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