The judge overseeing the probate of New York City hotelier Leona Helmsley's will has ruled that, contrary to her wishes, the billions of dollars that will flow into the charitable trust she created do not have to be spent solely for the care and welfare of dogs, the New York Times reports.
In his ruling, Judge Troy K. Webber of Surrogate's Court in Manhattan said "the trustees may apply trust funds for such charitable purposes and in such amounts as they may, in their sole discretion, determine." Previously, the trustees — Helmsley's brother, lawyer, two grandsons, and a longtime friend — had filed a lengthy motion in court arguing that the mission statement did not limit the use of the money. The New York attorney general's office had filed a similar argument.
Experts in trusts and estates had warned that Helmsley's decree that her fortune be spent promoting canine well-being may not have been legally binding. Her two-page "mission statement" — last updated in 2004 but never actually incorporated into her will or the trust documents — also gave the trustees discretion in spending the money. While the directive stated that providing for the care of dogs was the main goal, Helmsley added "and such other charitable activities as the trustees shall determine."
Animal welfare groups were delighted when the terms of the mission statement were reported last year. But while the judge's decision was disappointing, said Bernard Unti, senior policy adviser at the Humane Society of the United States, it was not entirely unexpected. "The animal welfare sector in the United States and abroad is chronically underfunded," he noted, "and just the annual interest thrown off by an estate this large could do a tremendous amount of good."
According to spokesman Howard J. Rubenstein, the trustees of Helmsley's estate will begin awarding grants from the trust next month. "In the hope that this would be the court's decision," Rubenstein said, "the trustees have been diligently working to identify potential grantees so that the trust's funds would be put to optimal use as soon as possible in such areas as health care, medical research, human services, education, and various other areas."