By now, we have all heard about Leona Helmsley’s will, executed in July, 2005. The hotelier and real estate mogul became a symbol of 1980s greed and was given the nickname ”the Queen of Mean” after revelations of her tyrannical treatment of employees came to light during her 1988 trial on tax evasion charges. A housekeeper testified that she heard Helmsley say, ”Only the little people pay taxes.” Helmsley was convicted and served 19 months in prison.
Mrs. Helmsley died at age 87 on August 20, 2007. Her estate is worth in the neighborhood of $4 billion. She had been married to, and divorced from, an attorney, Leo Panzirer. They had one child, Jay Panzirer, who died in 1982. He, and his wife, Mimi, in turn, had four children, Leona’s grandchildren, David, Walter, Craig and Meegan.
Helmsley’s will provides, inter alia, that two of her grandchildren, David and Walter are to receive $10 million each, but they will lose half of that if they fail to visit their father’s grave at least once a year. They must sign a guest registry at the tomb to prove they were there.
Helmsley’s other two grandchildren received nothing under the will “for reasons which are known to them.” (According to one source, these “reasons” were a failure to name any of their children after her late husband,” Harry Helmsley, or their father, Jay.
But arguably no one made out better in the will than Trouble, Helmsley’s 8-year-old Maltese dog, who is the recipient of a $12 million trust fund. Trouble, who appeared in ads for the Helmsley Hotels, lived up to her name at least once by biting a housekeeper. The dog can now be called, officially, that alliterative term, Rich Bitch!
This Helmsley will could provide fees and other money to attorneys in New York for years. In the first place, there are a number of trusts for the benefit of relatives and the dog, a trust to keep up appearances at the family mausoleum, all with some discretion given to the trustees.
For example, the place where she is to be buried must be “acid washed or steam cleaned at least once a year”. A trust for $3 million is set aside for this. The Will directs that that “anything” with the name Helmsley must be maintained in “mint” condition. This request will be difficult to enforce. No money was left to carry out this request and she did not place any limitation on the items with the Helmsley name — it could be items from different families who just happen to share the same last name. A court may conclude that this request is too vague to be enforceable. Of course the lawyers will be heavily involved.
As noted, in order to continue receiving income, two of the grandchildren must visit their father’s grave (Leona’s son) at least once each calendar year, “preferable on the anniversary of [Jay’s] death,” unless they are physically or mentally unable to do so. If a grandchild misses just one unexcused time, the trust for that grandchild ends. Who will decide if the beneficiary is “physically or mentally unable to make the trip? Call in the lawyers!
There are five co-executors and co-trustees, Picture each with individual counsel all accruing billable hours at $800 to $1,000 per hour; the mouth waters at the prospect!
The will contains a so-called in terrorem clause, Latin for “to frighten” (lawyers love Latin; it increases the bill at least 25 %). This clause states that if any beneficiary tries to get the will thrown out, that person gets nothing. It may be that any fight to void the will might benefit the ultimate residual beneficiary – charitable trusts. There are two possible areas in which the Courts may become involved, however. The $12 million trust for Trouble, may just create trouble for the estate. The statute allows for trusts for the care of a domestic or pet animal, but a court may reduce the amount of the property transferred if it determines that amount substantially exceeds the amount required for the intended use. Unless Trouble is paying child support for a number of litters, a large number, the income from $12 million sure sounds excessive – at least to me. The Doggie Trust is not a matter of public record; the other Trusts mentioned in the Will are similarly not public documents, so to some extent, a lot of this is speculation. However, if a court does reduce the gift to Trouble, any money saved may go to charity – except for the attorney fees involved. On the other hand, perhaps contestants of the Will may get their hands on something. By the way, the Will directs Trouble’s remains to be buried next to Mrs. Helmsley. Under New York law, this cannot be done. (Memo from senior partner to fifteen associates: consider drafting new law, bring suit for Declaratory Judgment and record each and every billable hour!)
The objection to the Will that might benefit at least the grandchildren who got stiffed, and may be others, too, would be to attack the validity of the instrument itself.
A Will can only be made if the person was competent. The maker of the will must have been of “sound mind” when the will was made. This is not a rigorous requirement. Usually, a court faced with resolving a question of mental capacity requires only that the person who made the will knew what a will does and that knew that he or she was making one, understood what he or she owned, and was able to decide how to distribute his or her property.
In reality, a person must have been pretty far gone before a court will rule a will invalid; in short nutty as a fruitcake!
In Mrs. Helmsley’s case, she was clearly mean and,often, cruel. But nutty? Yeah!
Check out her wishes as expressed in the Will. Do her wishes go beyond eccentric and enter the world of nuttiness?
Attorneys have a phrase, in Latin, naturally. Res ipsa loquitur.