Three animal welfare organizations have filed suit in New York’s Surrogate Court to intervene in the matter of Leona Helmsley’s $5 billion estate. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and Maddie’s Fund reported at a news conference August 11 that the Helmsley trustees are misdirecting funds despite her expressed intent to help dogs.
Howard Rubenstein, spokesman for The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, said in a written statement Tuesday, “After waiting for nearly six months following that decision of the Surrogate, these three organizations have leveled a broadside attack against the trustees, against the Surrogate and against the New York State Attorney General, and have accompanied those attacks with an extensive media campaign. The trustees will be litigating this matter in the court, not in the press.”
A statement posted on the trust website denies that Helmsley’s wishes have been ignored: “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.”
The statement pointed out that $1 million of the $136 million distributed so far has gone to dog-related charities. Of that, $100,000 went directly to animal welfare, the ASPCA. The other $900,000 went to nonprofit organizations that work with service dogs, which constitutes as human interest, not animal welfare as Helmsley intended, the animal groups said.
“The core of this lawsuit is a question of whether the courts are willing to recognize and support a clear statement of donor intent,” Marsha Perelman, chairwoman of the ASPCA’s board of directors, said at the news conference. “In March 2004, Leona Helmsley signed a statement which clearly sets forth her wish and instructed that her estate be used, in part, for the care of dogs. The trustees of her estate have asked New York’s Surrogate Court for permission to ignore this wish and the court has given them permission to do so. This is a blatant mismanagement of her estate.”
The motion that the organizations filed would vacate the initial order.
Legal action was not a move the groups made quickly, said Wayne Pacelle, CEO of HSUS. In fact, they were reluctant to go this route, he said.
“We did our best to have a settlement or resolution of this matter that would not require costly legal action on anyone’s part,” he said. “But the injustice, in our view, as charitable organizations devoted to the principle of animal welfare, is so grave that we felt compelled to take this extraordinary action.”
Pacelle said the five trustees have substituted their judgment for Helmsley’s, making the underlining assumption that animal welfare is not a legitimate social mission or purpose.
Henry Christensen of McDermott, Will & Emery and Charles Berry of Arnold & Potter, legal representatives of the ASPCA, the HSUS and Maddie’s Fund, respectively, said they are surprised at how this has turned out.
“We actually consider it to be rather a simple case,” Christensen said at the news conference. “It’s a question of whether you are going to honor donor intent or are you not. … (Helmsley) signed the mission statement which said that the $5 billion trust was to go to organizations which were engaged in the care and welfare of dogs and to all other charities. This was not the disjunct, this was the conjunct. Both, dog welfare charities and every other kind of charity.”
The trustees maintain in their website statement that Helmsley “entrusted her successor trustees with—in twice-stated language of the trust itself—‘sole discretion’ to distribute the trust’s money to charities the trustees consider worthy.”
They said they held off issuing grants until the Surrogate Court upheld their position.
The statement further points out that “(Helmsley’s) actions spoke as clearly as the words of the trust documents.” For example, in the eight years between the formation of the trust and her death, Helmsley contributed more than $55 million to charitable causes. Of that, $1,000 was made to a dog-related charity.
“Even more telling is this: The claim that the trust was established for dog-related purposes relies on a document entitled ‘Mission Statement’ signed by Mrs. Helmsley in 2004,” according to the trustees’ statement. “Between her signing that document and her death—during which time she alone controlled the trust—Mrs. Helmsley and the trust gave over $29 million to charities; of that, the amount she and the trust gave to dog-related charities was exactly zero.”
The $5 billion at stake is a game changer, Perelman said. Such money has the potential to empty animal shelters, prevent euthanasia and help prevent animal cruelty such as dog fighting.
This is not the only case of misdirecting funds despite clear intentions to help animal welfare groups, said Rich Avanzino, president of Maddie’s Fund.
“Literally hundreds of millions of dollars that have been willed by people nationally who cared about dogs (and) have not gone to provide for dogs as was intended,” Avanzino said. “The ignoring of donor intent in this country has become an unspoken national shame.”
In the end, this is not just about animal welfare, said the HSUS’ Pacelle.
“This is a matter that should concern every person who scraped and saved to leave money for philanthropic concerns,” he said. “It’s about the integrity of that process, whether your concerns are to leave money to a hospital or to the defense of children or to your alma mater, whatever it may be, every person who has the interest should feel confident about the integrity of the system and preserving the intent of the donor. So if it’s animal welfare today it could be patients tomorrow and education the next day. There’s a much larger principle at stake.”
Helmsley’s Maltese, Trouble, received $2 million. A judge reduced the amount from the will’s original $12 million.