Trustees Ignore Leona Helmsley’s Donor Intent

The late hotel magnate Leona Helmsley wanted the bulk of her estate to be spent on the care and welfare of dogs, but her trustees had other ideas.

Instead, they have decided to give only $1 million of the $5 billion estate for canine care.

“This is a trifling and embarrassingly small amount,” according to Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. “Mrs. Helmsley’s wishes are clearly being subverted.”

With just one 5,000th of the total estate of the animal lover being devoted to dogs, I am inclined to agree with Pacelle for a change.

Perhaps Helmsley sabotaged herself by not being specific enough. As the New York Times reports

After Mrs. Helmsley’s death in 2007, it was revealed that she had drafted a mission statement four years earlier listing two specific priorities for the distribution of her estate. The first was helping the poor, which she struck from the document a year later. The second was to provide for the care of dogs, although she added “and such other charitable activities as the trustees shall determine.”

Our senior fellow, Martin Morse Wooster, has explored at length what happens when philanthropists are not specific in their bequests or when their fortunes are hijacked by trustees who have different views. Wooster’s book is called The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of “Donor Intent.”  The third edition of the book is available at Amazon.com.

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