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September 22nd, 2008
03:23 PM ET

Rich Bitch: The legal battle over trust funds for pets

Editor's Note: Jeffrey Toobin will be on AC360° tonight to discuss the billions of dollars Leona Helmsley left to her dog and the many other pet owners adding their animals to their wills. Watch at 10p ET.

Jeffrey Toobin | Bio
CNN Senior Legal Analyst
New Yorker Columnist

The life of Leona Helmsley presents an object lesson in the truism that money does not buy happiness. Born in 1920, she overcame a hardscrabble youth in Brooklyn to become a successful condominium broker in Manhattan, eventually alighting, in the nineteen-sixties, at a firm owned by Harry B. Helmsley, one of the city’s biggest real-estate developers. The two married in 1972, and Leona became the public face of their empire, the self-styled “queen” of the Helmsley chain of hotels. In a series of ads that ran in the Times Magazine and elsewhere, Helmsley’s visage became a symbol of the celebration of wealth in the nineteen-eighties. She wouldn’t settle for skimpy towels, the ads proclaimed—“Why should you?”

In private, as it turned out, the grinning monarch wasn’t just demanding but despotic. Throughout her life, Leona left a trail of ruin—embittered relatives, fired employees, and, fatefully, unpaid taxes. Knowing that the Helmsleys had used company funds to renovate their sprawling mansion, Dunnellen Hall, in Greenwich, Connecticut, disgruntled associates leaked the records to the Post. Among the charges billed to the company were a million-dollar dance floor installed above a swimming pool; a forty-five-thousand-dollar silver clock; and a two-hundred-and-ten-thousand-dollar mahogany card table. In 1988, the U.S. Attorney’s office charged the couple with income-tax evasion, among other crimes. (Harry Helmsley avoided trial because of ill health; he died in 1997, at the age of eighty-seven.) At the trial, a housekeeper famously testified that Leona had told her, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes,” and the public warmed itself on a tabloid bonfire built under the Queen of Mean. Leona was convicted of multiple counts and served eighteen months in federal prison. In time, following her release, she became largely a recluse, and she died at Dunnellen Hall on August 20, 2007.

After her husband died, Leona Helmsley got a dog named Trouble, a Maltese bitch. In her will, which she signed two years before her death, Helmsley put aside twelve million dollars in a trust to care for Trouble. Further, she directed that, when Trouble died, the dog was to be “buried next to my remains in the Helmsley Mausoleum,” at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in Westchester County. Helmsley made only a handful of relatively small individual bequests in the will, and left the bulk of her remaining estate to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Based on the figures in court files, that trust may turn out to be worth nearly eight billion dollars, which would make it one of the top ten or so foundations in the United States. (Leona’s estate was so large because Harry left his fortune to her.) According to a “mission statement,” which Helmsley signed on March 1, 2004, the trust was to make expenditures for “purposes related to the provision of care for dogs.” The size of the bequests, to Trouble and to dogs generally, has generated widespread astonishment.

In fact, the clear motivation underlying Leona Helmsley’s will—her desire to pass her wealth on to dogs—is more common than might be expected. Pet-lovers (many of whom now prefer the term “animal companion”) have engineered a quiet revolution in the law to allow, in effect, nonhumans to inherit and spend money. It is becoming routine for dogs to receive cash and real estate in the form of trusts, and there is already at least one major foundation devoted to helping dogs. A network of lawyers and animal activists has orchestrated these changes, largely without opposition, in order to whittle down the legal distinctions between human beings and animals. They are already making plans for the Helmsleys’ billions.

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Filed under: 360° Radar • Jeffrey Toobin
soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Andy - Atlanta, GA

    Now that's a Pitbull with lipstick!

    September 23, 2008 at 4:39 am |
  2. Edidiong Williams

    It's outrageous to leave that amount for dogs, she must have been an unhappy individual. One can't buy love with money, but can sure find it if a closer look is taken on other humans. If there are other similar persons wishing to leave enormous amounts in trust for dogs, kindly send it to me to aid in orphanages here. P.O.Box 2680, Uyo, Nigeria.

    September 23, 2008 at 3:27 am |
  3. Gary Chandler in Canada

    REALLY The DOGSITTER only gets $5000 per month,,,, BUT I am sure the dog has to holiday all over the world and be ferried around in limos. What a tax DODGE!!!!
    Tax the dogsitters for lodging and perks!!!!!!!!!

    September 23, 2008 at 3:17 am |
  4. Ally Keehn

    All I want to know is what happens to the money when the dog dies?Wow! This is simply crazy. Can you think of the hatred she most of felt towards her family to leave her fortune to an animal?

    September 23, 2008 at 2:40 am |
  5. Sophia

    Maybe in her last life she was a dog.

    September 23, 2008 at 2:23 am |
  6. Oscar Cury Paniagua

    Tonight I watched Mr. Cooper and guest critique of Leona Wemsley's trust in favour of her dog Trouble. Yes, I agree this lady was not a nice person.

    I will now tell you my story, which might help you understand why some people leave money for the care of their dogs. I own two westies, Fergus and India, who have been more loyal and loving to me, in a shorter span of time and with less expense expended upon them, than my three ungrateful, money hungry, diabolical nephews.

    I will do everything in my power so that my dogs live a very decent life upon my departure (Im 53) from this world. If I have to hire the best attorney in the land to secure this end, I will do so.

    And no, I dont hate humans, but my dogs are MINE, and love me unconditionallly, as opposed to these minions from Hell and their mother, my "inmediate family"...

    With a family like this, yes, I prefer to leave it ALL to my doggies. Heck yes! A million times yes! At least I dont have to sue them in Switzerland for the inheritance of my still living, Alzheimer-suffering saintly mother.

    God help me ensure Fergus and India's future, and for an ever expanding, shark infested ocean of separation from my "family", who would probably send them to a kennel while sacking my house of everything of value!

    September 23, 2008 at 12:38 am |
  7. Camina T. in Arroyo Grande CA

    The lady had no children and the money was her husband's. They failed to pay some taxes. He died and she got a dog for company. She was right about big people in America not having to pay taxes? She wasn't big enough? Americans rich and poor love their dogs but something horrible happened to the dogs that served during the Vietman war. Remember those dogs at the WAR DOG memorials on the East and West Coasts. I've got a story for the New Yorker called Another Christmas Carol where Senator Ebenezer meets the ghost of Senator Marley in an Elevator.

    September 23, 2008 at 12:23 am |
  8. Tommy Weber

    Just think about this...There are millions of families in the US that struggle financialy, some to the extreme. A little money can go a long way, if donated to those families who need a little help with the food bill, the electric bill, or maybe to help with families unfortunate for a valuble education...don't you think she would have a little bit more satisfaction to help out our society. $100, $1000, $5000 is a fraction of her fortune but will bring happiness for those who need a little helping hand.

    September 23, 2008 at 12:15 am |
  9. Maggie

    Just because it is Leona Helmsely, people are quick to judge her decision to leave $12 million to her dog, Trouble. If this was Donald Trump or Bill Gates, I don't think you would get the same reaction.

    Nothing wrong or even sinister about Leona's will - it's her money and her decision. Power to the pooch!

    September 23, 2008 at 12:07 am |
  10. Nate

    The Rich sick itch, just didn't want anybody to pay taxes on that money? A dog cant be heild accountable, theirfore can't pay the Tax on that money.

    September 23, 2008 at 12:01 am |
  11. Catie

    Yay Jeffrey Toobin! Thanks for coming to Elon and for posing in front of our giant red screen!

    September 22, 2008 at 11:58 pm |
  12. Edidiong

    It's down right outrageous. How could she? My dear, there are millions of people out here willing to love you, you just didn't look close enough. This proves that the world is sprawling with folks who need true love. It's a fact, she must have been a very proud individual who never swallowed her pride when it came to other homo sapiens. A word for folks of similar minds, send your money to me and i'll dedicate it to my orphanage in africa. Email at eddy811@yahoo.co.uk, and I swear this kids would owe their lives to your memory for generations to come. I forgive her, but Nature won't if there's someone of similar nature still out there. One can't buy love, but can be sure to find it!

    September 22, 2008 at 11:42 pm |
  13. Azeez

    Are you kidding me; $8 Billion dollars for a Dog? When we have people die of hunger around the world. This is a sick sick world…

    September 22, 2008 at 11:30 pm |
  14. Forest

    hmmm
    just read some of the other comments. Just to make sure the lens I look through is recognized by others:
    I've never seen a dog with a wallet in my life. They don't use money- they barter with bones. People use money, and money that enters the economy will do good by being spent with people. The benefit to people will just have to be filtered through the hundreds of dog care interests, and to the benefit of dogs.
    The only way that Leona could have stuck it to people completely would have been to burn it all and keep it from being spent, which would not allow for any job creation.

    That said- hopefully she was smart enough to make sure the administrative costs don't just enrich a bunch of lawyers!!

    September 22, 2008 at 11:28 pm |
  15. Forest

    Just heard that Leona wanted her 8 billion left to go to the good of dogs. I say fine. Crazy people do some nasty things, and this is about the nicest goofy think I can think of. Better this than donate it to some political cause-
    Hopefully the money will at least be spent in the good ol USA- it will have more positive impact that way than another GWB tax break to the ubberich. If the money could be spread over say 8 million people, that would be $1000 each. I would hope that those people are the ones struggling with mortgages, raising kids, high gas prices and all the problems we have. That way, the money would do some real good- support families that need to make a buck, and give a good home to dogs.

    Never had a dog that wasn't from a shelter- and all of them were great members of the family over the past 50 years.

    September 22, 2008 at 11:10 pm |
  16. Yulia Karpeshina

    Health care for people is not free for people, but it will be free for dogs!

    September 22, 2008 at 11:01 pm |
  17. Brenda Harris

    Look at that mugshot. She did not look like a happy camper. I guess money can't change you. Damn, gone to the dogs. Look if there is anyone else out there who doesn't know where to leave their Billions, send it to me in a cashiers check at PO box 4333 Troy MI 48099. I will open the biggest Homes for Orphaned Children you'd ever want to see.
    What a waste, didn't she know that children are starving in this country also. GOD rest her Soul she knows not what he did.

    September 22, 2008 at 10:04 pm |
  18. Gary Chandler in Canada

    WHO DOES THE DOG WRITE A WILL TO????

    September 22, 2008 at 9:55 pm |
  19. Jon Darby

    Just some trivia: Natalie Schafer, the character actress best known as Mrs. Howell on GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, was a childless divorcee with no close relatives and left most of her multimillion dollar estate (including her house on Rodeo Drive) to her poodle. Liberace also left large amounts of his estate to his pack of dogs.

    September 22, 2008 at 8:45 pm |
  20. Gary Chandler in Canada

    She outTHUNK the IRS is all.

    September 22, 2008 at 8:37 pm |
  21. jamie, philly

    Toobin,

    Again, hysterical as usual. I think that she did a great thing by leaving a majority of her fortune to the trust and it will most certaintly benefit a lot of people, human and non, but to leave $12 million to a dog? That's like giving OJ a new pair of gloves every Christmas...ridiculous.

    I love my cats very much but I highly doubt that Socrates and Princess Fatty know the difference of a can of Friskies for $.49 and a $100 meal for dinner every day.

    September 22, 2008 at 8:24 pm |
  22. Clarence, Albuquerque

    How do I get a paw print naming me as heir after the pooch moves on?

    September 22, 2008 at 8:21 pm |
  23. ,Barbara-Dalton Ga

    It was her money, she could do with it whatever she wanted. If I had
    that kind of money (even close to that kind of money) I want to feel like
    I would have made sure my pets were taken care of and left a lot of
    it to my church, and charities that I really feel make a difference in life
    one of which is the humane society.

    September 22, 2008 at 8:20 pm |
  24. Kate

    First and foremost, I have a two-year-old golden retriever named Izzy that I love very much. I could not imagine my life without her, as she is like my child (and believe me, I do spoil her like one). With that being said, I think leaving a dog 12 million dollars is slightly ridiculous. I understand that the money was Leona's, but she could have left the dog with easily 1 million (that is still being very generous) and Trouble would have lived a very comfortable life. I am pleased she gave billions of dollars to a foundation for dogs, but the money could have been split up to help other foundations and organizations that actually help people.

    September 22, 2008 at 7:14 pm |
  25. Alex

    Guess Kibbles & Bits are gone forever. So now whats for dinner?

    September 22, 2008 at 6:17 pm |
  26. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    Dogs Rule!!! I really feel for her grandkids, though. It's not that they deserve the money as a birthright. It's just that she apparently had no regard for her son's children except to slap them in the face. Then again, money is the ultimate bargaining tool for love in dysfunctional families. And when we choose not to be manipulated, we often lose the money but gain so much more (like our own dignity and self-respect) in return. I personally think her grandkids were the real winners here overall. With a witch like that for a grandmother, at least they can move on now and not have to worry about playing the money family games.

    September 22, 2008 at 6:03 pm |
  27. Sharon from Indy

    Jeffrey:
    I am an animal lover like many people, but Leona Helmsey's request for millions to go to her dog is absurb.

    With millions of starving and sick people in the world, couldn't she have found something more worthwhile to give her wealth to other than a dog?

    I think the "dog inheritance" was a personal message to her family.

    September 22, 2008 at 5:36 pm |
  28. Annie Kate

    I love my pets but I'm not leaving any money to them. I know it was Leona's money and hers to do with as she pleased but she could have done a lot of good for people by putting it into a trust fund and letting it provide scholarships – perhaps for potential vets. Its too bad that despite all her money she doesn't seem to have been a happy person. If leaving her money to the dogs made her happy before she died then at least she had that.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    September 22, 2008 at 4:35 pm |
  29. Justa Thought

    How can any dog survive on a paltry $12,000,000 bank account? This just goes to show you how skewed thinking gets when you have more dollars than sense.

    September 22, 2008 at 4:12 pm |
  30. Colleen

    For once I agree with you Cindy.

    September 22, 2008 at 4:11 pm |
  31. Heather,ca

    Love the title Jeff. You could apply it to a dod or the owner. All I can say which I think any reasonable animal lover will tell you, animals have absolutely no concept of money whatsoever. They don't care if you have lot's of money to buy them things because usually there care more about playing in the bag or the box than the high cost toy or furniture. They just want to be given your 100% undivided attention when they want it and how they want it. They wouldn't know an estate to a smaller house or apartment. If they have somewhere to play to eat a good view they are happy. I think Mrs I don't pay taxes didn't trust any human beings so she put the money in one place she could protect it. Like buying high priced furniture that is a way of hiding money. I'm sure she did what she did with the dog out of spite. I think someone should have told her that the dog doesn't know or care about money and in the end you cant take it with you.

    I think making arrangements for your animal companion is as important as for a child,but animals have no concept of the things people do. It sounds like she was a very unhappy person her entire life and placed more value in money and possesions than people. Sad for the family and poor little rich dog. What she did was stupid but what she did was out of spite. I don't see people leaving everything to their pets unless they are not of good sound mind a body. If you have enough money you can get any lawyer to do what you want despite logic etc. I know nothing with my cat's is better than a lot of good love,now that's priceless. I guess it has all gone to the dog's well the rich one's at least for now.

    September 22, 2008 at 4:04 pm |
  32. lauralee

    do you suppose any of that can be used to fight abuse like puppy mills and dog fighting?

    September 22, 2008 at 4:01 pm |
  33. KIm

    Her money and if she passes it to the humane society or another charity then so be it ! Sounds like she loved dogs !

    September 22, 2008 at 3:58 pm |
  34. Louise

    Ok I can see making sure your animals are taken care of after you die, but come on! In my opinion this woman was never of sound mind or body. I would contest this will and seeing as she equally hated everyone; donate the money to charity.

    September 22, 2008 at 3:55 pm |
  35. Keith

    What Cindy says.

    September 22, 2008 at 3:52 pm |
  36. Gary Chandler in Canada

    It is a tax dodge, to beat inheritance tax. The 'caretakers' of these dumb animals live in the lap of luxury. It is insane to leave money to an animal. Animals do not pay taxes!

    September 22, 2008 at 3:48 pm |
  37. Cindy

    Hey...to each his own. It was Leona's money to do with as she pleased. If she wants her dog taken very well care of and also other dogs then that is her right to say so in her will. It's no body else's business.

    Cindy...Ga.

    September 22, 2008 at 3:36 pm |
  38. Diane N.

    Shouldn't there actually be a check if the person creating the will is in fact of "sound mind"?

    September 22, 2008 at 3:35 pm |