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Helmsley's billions going to the dogs

Sure, the hotelier and real estate magnate Leona Helmsley left $12 million in her will to her dog Trouble. But that, it turns out, is nothing much compared with what other dogs may receive from the charitable trust of Helmsley, who died in August.

Her instructions, specified in a two-page “mission statement,” are that the entire trust, valued at $5 billion to $8 billion and amounting to virtually all her estate, be used for the care and welfare of dogs, according to two people who have seen the document and who described it on condition of anonymity.

It is by no means clear, however, that all the money will go to dogs. Another provision of the mission statement says Helmsley's trustees may use their discretion in distributing the money, and some lawyers say the statement may not mean much anyway, given that its directions were not incorporated into Helmsley's will or the trust documents.

“The statement is an expression of her wishes that is not necessarily legally binding,” said William Josephson, a lawyer who was the chief of the Charities Bureau in the New York State attorney general's office from 1999 to 2004.

Still, longstanding laws favor adherence to a donor's intent, and the mission statement is the only clear expression of Helmsley's charitable intentions. That will make the document difficult for her trustees, as well as the probate court and state charity regulators, to ignore.

The two people who described the statement said Helmsley signed it in 2003 to establish goals for the multibillion-dollar trust that would disburse assets after her death.

The first goal was to help indigent people, the second to provide for the care and welfare of dogs. A year later, they said, she deleted the first goal.

Howard Rubenstein, a spokesman for the executors of Helmsley's estate, said they were still working to determine the trust's direction and they did not want to comment on the statement.

Helmsley, the widow of Harry Helmsley, who built a real estate empire in Manhattan, was best known for her sharp tongue and impatience with humanity. She became a household name when she was featured in ads for the Helmsley hotels.

“It's the only palace in the world where the queen stands guard,” ads for the Helmsley Palace proclaimed.

But for many Americans, she later became a symbol of unbridled arrogance and belief in entitlement, particularly after she was convicted in 1989 of $1.2 million in federal income tax evasion, for which she was sent to prison.

When she died last year at 87, she left all but a few million dollars of her vast estate to what will become one of the nation's dozen largest foundations when the probate process is finished. She had $2.3 billion in liquid assets when she died, according to the probate petition, and the disposal of her real estate holdings is expected to produce an additional $3 billion to $6 billion.

Even if the resulting total is at the low end of the estimate – $5 billion or so – the trust will be worth almost 10 times the combined assets of all 7,381 animal-related nonprofit groups reporting to the Internal Revenue Service in 2005.

Her goal of helping dogs was not Helmsley's only posthumous quirk. In her will, she ordered that her tomb, in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., be “acid-washed or steam-cleaned” once a year.

She also made two grandchildren's combined $6 million inheritance contingent on their visiting their father's grave, requiring that a registration book be placed in the mausoleum to prove that they had shown up.

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