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Leona Helmsley's Trust Can Support More Than Dogs, Court Rules

February 27, 2009

(March 2, 2009) In an unusual case that is raising eyebrows among fundraisers and donors alike, the court defied Helmsley’s wish for the bulk of her $5.2 billion estate to be directed solely to the care and welfare of dogs.

Helmsley became America’s top donor in 2008 with a bequest gift estimated at $5.2 billion. As of 2003, her wishes for the money included medical and healthcare services for children and the indigent. A mission statement she signed in March 2004 revoked this statement, leaving out mention of human services and directing the money strictly to dogs, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

But, Helmsley did add to the final mission statement the phrase “and such other charitable activities as the trustees shall determine,” according to The New York Times. The newspaper also reports that experts in trusts and estates had warned that her wishes to support only canines was not legally binding, since the mission statement was never incorporated into her will or the trust documents.  

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust will become one of the wealthiest foundations in the United States as a result of the bequest. The trustees who filed the motion that the money not be limited to helping dogs—which include Helmsley’s brother, a close friend and two grandsons—said they will announce their first charitable grants next month.

What Are Your Thoughts?

eWire is interested to hear what you think about a court overturning expressly stated donor intent. What do you think are the ramifications for bequest fundraising? We will publish your comments in the next issue of eWire. Email ewire@afpnet.org. Please keep your responses brief and include your name, city and state/province.

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