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Leona Helmsley | The "Queen of Mean's" Multibillion Estate

Leona Helmsley Estate.jpgEven today, almost 12 years after she died, you only have to say the words "Queen of Mean" to know we're talking about the late billionaire heiress, Leona Helmsley.

She was known to the public for her excessive thriftiness and unwillingness to pay contractors, but she is also remembered for having served 19 months in prison for tax evasion. Ironically, while she was a social pariah and much vilified in the press, most people don't recall that she had a soft spot for animals. Indeed, when she died in 2007 at the age of 87, she left a $12 million trust fund to her Maltese dog named Trouble. Little did she know that Trouble's bequest would open her estate up to even more trouble.

When people make unusual bequests, such as leaving millions to a pet, it can open the door for an estate to be challenged. Helmsley had four grandchildren, two of whom she intended to disinherit, while the other two each got $10 Million. The two who got nothing, Craig and Meegan Panzirer, sued the estate, claiming that Leona Helmsley was mentally unfit when she wrote her will, as evidenced by leaving $12 Million to her dog.

After nearly a year, a Manhattan Surrogate Court judge agreed, ruling that Helmsley was indeed mentally unfit when she wrote her will. The judge ruled that Trouble would have to economize and live on $2 million, instead of $10 million. For the three remaining years of her life, Trouble had to subsist on a $100,000 per year full-time security detail, a $666 per month grooming stipend, and $100 per month for food.

Meanwhile, $4 million of the original $10 million bequeathed to Trouble went to the Helmsley Charitable Trust, while Craig and Meegan Panzirer split the remaining $6 million.

Why those two grandchildren were disinherited in the first place will forever remain a secret, as the final ruling required them to remain silent about their grandmother. Some speculated that Helmsley cut them out because neither named any of their children after Harry Helmsley, Leona's late husband. We'll never know for sure.

Despite her reputation, it seems that Leona Helmsley mellowed in her later years, and might even have become generous. After 9/11 she donated $5 million to help families of New York City police and firefighters, and she gave at least $25 million to New York Presbyterian Hospital for medical research.

Still, the lesson from this case for others is clear. If you hope to avoid trouble with will contests, don't leave your dog, named Trouble or anything else, $10 Million.

Before you go, please let me know if you'd like to receive a free copy of my first book, The Wolf at the Door, or my new book, Alzheimer's, Widowed Stepmothers & Estate Crimes. Just send your address in an email to me at [email protected], and I'll be glad to put one in the mail.

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