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Leaving 5-8 Billion to Take Care of Dogs? Not So Fast…

helmsley-and-her-dogEric Penzer, at the New York Trusts & Estates Litigation Blog, posted the newsthat the New York County Surrogate ruled last week that Leona Helmsley‘s 5-8 billion dollar Charitable Trust need not limit its beneficience to dogs.

Ms. Helmsley had already tried to leave 12 million dollars, from her Will, to a trust for her dog’s benefit. But Surrogate Renee Roth reduced the amount of that trust to 2 million because one can only leave money in an estate for the benefit of an animal to the extent that that money can actually go toward the care of the animal.

But her much larger $5-8b Charitable trust contained language in its mission statement that the trust should “provide for the care of dogs and such other charitable activities as the trustees shall determine.”

The Surrogate ruled that since the mission statement indicated that the trust funds may be used for “such other charitable activities as the trustees shall determine,” the instructions that the trust be used “for the care of dogs” is non-binding, precatory language, and the trustees may use their discretion to distribute the funds to causes that would benefit needy human beings.

The rule regarding the non-enforceability of language that merely expresses a preference or a hope by a Decedent in a Will or Trust was explained in Matter of Samuelson, 110 AD2d 183, 187 (2d Dept 1985). The Appellate Division stated that it is well established that “precatory language contained in a will is merely an expression of the testator’s wish or desire and is not legally binding on the person to whom the wish or desire is directed… Thus, the named party ‘can carry out the wish and desire of the testator or not as he sees fit.’ ” (citations omitted).

Most of us do not have multi-billion dollar estates to dispose of, but many of us do want to see that our property is disposed of appropriately and that the surviving members of our family are cared-for properly. Our office has a large Wills, Trusts & Estates practice, so I have been able to see a wide variety of situations arise, including decisions about whether to include this kind of “precatory language” in a will or other testamentary document. So give us a call!

Picture of Leona Helmsley and her beloved dog, Trouble, courtesy of

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