Sep 18, 2007

Helmsley Dog's Trust Fund Could Be Trouble

If you've been near a newspaper lately, you probably know that Leona Helmsley, famed luxury hotel owner and so-called "Queen of Mean," left $12 million in trust for her little dog Trouble. Her chauffeur got $100,000. Two of her grandchildren got zero.

We all love to read about the crazy wishes of the ultra-rich. (Or the rich wishes of the ultra-crazy, as the case may be.) But are there possibly any lessons for the rest of us in the tale of millions left to a Maltese?

Maybe. First, don't make any gift in your will that's likely to provoke a court challenge from disgruntled relatives or other beneficiaries. Generally, you can do what you want in your will. You don't have to leave anything to your grown children, for example, if you don't want to. But if you make a gift that's excessive for accomplishing its purpose--for instance, a trust fund for a pet that's far, far larger than anything necessary to take fabulous care of the animal--other beneficiaries are likely to challenge it, and a judge may cut down the amount. (If that happens, the extra money would probably go to certain other beneficiaries named in the will.)

Second, wills are public documents. Don't put anything in them that you wouldn't mind the world knowing. Just ask the Hemsleys: As soon as Leona Helmsley's will was filed with the court after her death, it appeared online for everyone to see.

Mary Randolph