Mary Randolph: September 2007 Archives

September 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

September 17, 2007

Picking a Guardian for Children: Why It's So Hard

Recently a parent at my child's school talked to me about making her will--or rather, not making it. She knows she ought to, but she and her husband got stuck when it came to naming a guardian for their two kids. "His family is better with money," she told me, "but mine is more fun!"

A lot of parents can't get over this stumbling block, and as a result they don't have wills. And if something did happen to them and their kids needed a guardian, a judge would have no clue about who they would have wanted to take on the job.

The best advice I can give is to just name somebody--you can always change it later. But don't leave such an important decision up to a judge who doesn't know a thing about you or your family. Attorney (and mom) Liza Hanks has a great discussion of how to overcome common problems in her book The Busy Family's Guide to Estate Planning.

Mary Randolph