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Leona Helmsley's fortune to be donated primarily to medical charities; trustees throw $1-million bone to dogs

April 21, 2009 |  2:56 pm

Leona Helmsley's fortune will go to medical research (her trustees threw a $1-million bone to animal charities) "Queen of Mean" Leona Helmsley apparently had a soft spot: The real estate magnate, who died in 2007, had a beloved Maltese dog named Trouble and wanted her vast fortune to be donated to animal charities after her death.

Helmsley's instructions for the dispersal of her trust, estimated to be in the neighborhood of $5-8 billion, stipulated that the lion's share go toward the care and welfare of dogs.  But a provision in the instructions suggested Helmsley's trustees should be allowed to use their discretion as they doled out the funds, and just how binding her instructions would be was in doubt. "The statement is an expression of her wishes that is not necessarily legally binding," William Josephson, a lawyer who spent five years as the head of New York's Charities Bureau, told the New York Times.

Turns out, the trustees are making use of the "discretion" they were allowed.  They've announced that they plan to donate $136 million to various charities; of that amount, $1 million will go to dogs.  The Associated Press reports:

Helmsley's estate announced its first round of charitable grants today. The largest, $40 million, goes to New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. The majority goes to New York City hospitals and other health-care systems across the country.

Helmsley's estate distributed $1 million to 10 animal rights groups, including $100,000 to the ASPCA.

Of the $136 million (including the $40-million New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center donation), almost all -- about $115 million, according to the Wall Street Journal -- will go to fund medical research on diabetes, Alzheimer's and heart disease. 

Other grants distributed by the trustees will fund rural health care, New York-based homeless shelters and food banks, environmental conservation, education, and emergency services programs.

Helmsley famously attempted to leave a $12-million trust fund to care for Trouble after her death, but a judge reduced the amount last year to $2 million and decreed that the remaining $10 million earmarked for the little dog's care should go to Helmsley's charitable foundation.

What do you think -- should Helmsley's wishes to donate most of her fortune to animals have been honored, or were her trustees right in sharing the wealth with other human-related charities? 

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Helmsley at a 2003 court appearance.  Credit: Chip East/Reuters.

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