The $12 Million Maltese

Can Leona Helmsley’s heirs contest her will?

Leona Helmsley and her dog, Trouble

Deceased billionaire Leona Helmsley left $12 million for what appears to be the care of her dog Trouble, according to documents (PDF) released Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Queen of Mean left her brother $15 million and two of her grandkids $10 million each, but she cut two other grandkids out from the inheritance “for reasons which are known to them.” How do you contest a will?

Prove that it wasn’t properly signed or that the deceased was under coercion or mentally incapacitated. A probate court could rule the will invalid if Helmsley had been threatened, tricked into thinking she was signing another document, or had her signature forged. Otherwise, relatives in search of a bigger payout would need to show that Helmsley signed in good faith but didn’t understand what she was doing.

The hotelier’s mental faculties had weakened in recent years, and she’d turned over control of her real-estate company to a team of lawyers. But it’s not clear that Helmsley couldn’t make informed decisions back in 2005, when she made her will. (Even someone who’s generally demented can make a valid signature if she’s having what’s called a lucid moment.) She signed the will in front of three witnesses, who were supposed to withhold their signatures if they knew she wasn’t of sound mind. To convince the court that Helmsley was mentally incapacitated, one might need to prove that the witnesses were mistaken—or that they were themselves incapacitated.

If the heirs can’t invalidate the will, they might still be able to get their hands on Trouble’s money. If Helmsley provided for the dog under what’s called a “statutory pet trust,” then a court can rule that some of the $12 million should be redistributed. In New York, a statutory pet trust can be challenged if it “substantially exceeds the amount required for the intended use.” If a judge decides to shift money out of the trust, it’s more likely to end up going to her charitable trust than to her relatives, since that’s where the bulk of her property—worth a reputed $2.5 billion—went. On the other hand, if Helmsley set up a traditional pet trust for Trouble, the courts would be less likely to reduce its size. * (Statutory trusts provide more court supervision and can be very easy to draw up, but they’re not available everywhere.)

Without a successful challenge, the $12 million trust can easily generate $600,000 a year in income for the dog. But what will happen to the money left over when Trouble finally joins Helmsley and her husband in their million-dollar mausoleum?

We can’t know for sure, since the trust (unlike the will) isn’t a public document. We do know from the will that the money in the trusts for her grandchildren and brother will go to her charitable trust after they die; the pet trust might be set up in the same way. In the meantime, Trouble joins the ranks of trust-fund pets like Rodeo, a Shar-Pei that received a $100,000 trust from tobacco heiress Doris Duke. British pop star Dusty Springfield provided for her cat Nicholas with a very specific set of instructions in her will. He was to be given baby food, a bed lined with her nightgown, and the opportunity to “marry” another cat. Her songs were also to be played to him each night.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Gerry Beyer of the Texas Tech University School of Law, Steve Hartnett of the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, and Michael Whitty of Winston & Strawn.

Correction, Aug. 31, 2007: The article originally said courts would not be able to reduce the size of traditional pet trusts. (Return to the corrected sentence.)