August 17, 2009
ASPCA Asks Court to Direct Helmsley Money Back to Dogs
The ASPCA, along with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Maddie's Fund, filed suit this week in New York Surrogate's Court to intervene in the matter of the late Leona Helmsley's $5 billion estate. The suit seeks to overturn an earlier ruling that allows the Helmsley Trustees-those responsible for issuing charitable grants from the estate-to disregard Mrs. Helmsley's specific instructions that her wealth be used to help dogs.
"Just a fraction of the money involved in Mrs. Helmsley's estate is a game-changer for animal welfare," says Marsha Perelman, ASPCA Board Chair. "The fate of dogs in this country could very well rest on the decision of this lawsuit-it is that critical."
No nonprofit groups involved with animal welfare were contacted or given an opportunity to register formal objections prior to the court's controversial ruling last fall. As a result of that ruling, and in clear violation of Mrs. Helmsley's wishes, less than 0.1% the trust's initial round of grants was allocated to dog welfare-related charities.
"Dog fighting, puppy mills, pet homelessness and overpopulation are not $100,000 problems. But they're not billion-dollar problems, either," says Ed Sayres, President and CEO of the ASPCA. "Mrs. Helmsley understood the importance of animal welfare. She wanted her worldly estate to make our society better for dogs and animals-and if distributed as she intended, it definitely has the power to do so."
This case has larger implications beyond the fate of the Helmsley estate. The three organizations believe that the court system has a responsibility to protect the wishes of any decedent, and also to protect the charity world from the whims of trustees who wish to ignore estate planning instructions. The misdirection of the Helmsley fortune should be of interest to everyone who hopes to provide for beloved pets after death, as well as to the multitude of organizations, from nonprofits to universities, that rely on bequests.
The groups involved in the lawsuit are not seeking grants for themselves, but do hope to work with the Helmsley Trustees in an advisory capacity to award grants to animal welfare groups of various size and scope around the country. "There has been a sea change in recent years in how we treat animals. It's a shame that the Helmsley Trustees don't understand or respect that change," says Sayres.
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