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By: Scott Grossman on September 15th, 2016

The Leona Helmsley estate litigation ruling

What Happens When Someone is Disinherited in a Trust?

The well publicized and much criticized case of Leona Helmsley’s will and trust is in the news again.  The has a columnist who is outraged that Helmsley’s wishes have been ignored.  But were they?  The columnist’s first complaint is Helmsley having disinherited in a trust two of her grandchildren.  Those grandchildren filed a will contest alleging Helmsley was not mentally competent when she signed her will.  The estate‘s executors decided to settle the lawsuit rather than take it to trial.

The columnist is surprised and angry the executors changed the will to include omitted heirs.  This view betrays the columnists ignorance.  The executors did not change the will.  A challenge was brought to the validity of the will.  Had the executors lost the litigation the entire will would have been set aside.  Had this happened, the court (not the executors) would have been saying Helmsley was incapable of expressing her true wishes.  By settling the case the executors must have thought there was some risk of loss and giving up a piece of the estate was better than having the entire will set aside.

The columnist has a fair point that Helmsley specifically left $12 million for her dog’s care and that amount was reduced by the court to $2 million.  Typically, will provisions that are specific and clear are carried out to the letter.  If in fact this was the case then there is no legitimate reason for the judge to have allowed a departure from those terms.  I am not aware of any appeal having been taken from the judge’s ruling in that regard which may indicate New York law permits the trustee of an animal trust to not comply with its literal language if its intention can still be carried out through other means.