Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

Editor: Gerry W. Beyer
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Article: Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Probate & Property? Practical Drafting Tips from Her Majesty’s Wills

William A. Drennan (Professor of Law, Southern Illinois University Law School) recently published an article, Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Probate & Property? Practical Drafting Tips from Her Majesty’s Wills, ABA Probate & Property Magazine, Jan/Feb 2023. Provided below is an abstract to the Article:

Sensational sobriquets include the King of Swing, the Queen of Soul, the Sultan of Swat, Satchmo, the Say Hey Kid, the Manassas Mauler, and the Man in Black. A worthy addition is that unflattering moniker bestowed upon Leona Helmsley, a/k/a the Queen of Mean. This article proposes a new title for the late Leona—The Queen of Probate & Property. (The common or given names for those highlighting the start of this article, along with many more amazing appellations, are at the end of this article in The 100 Nickname Quiz! Take the quiz and see if you can identify all 100.)

Leona Helmsley established her place in the pantheon of wildly wealthy real property titans over decades, moving from high school dropout, to successful agent, to owning an amazing array of prized properties, including the Empire State Building. Along the way, she married real estate mogul Harry Helmsley in 1972, was convicted of federal tax fraud and spent 18 months in prison before being released on January 26, 1994, and inherited her husband Harry’s fortune upon his death in 1997 under a will he signed the day before Leona was released from prison. After accumulating an estate conservatively estimated at more than $5 billion, she passed away on August 7, 2007. But this article leaves the real property tale for others. See, e.g., Ransdell Pierson, The Queen of Mean: The Unauthorized Biography of Leona Helmsley (1989); Richard Hammer, Helmsleys: The Rise and Fall of Harry and Leona Helmsley (1990).

Instead, this article focuses on the probate side. Leona left a will addressing a cornucopia of issues with practical implications for even not-so-wealthy souls. With the 15th anniversary of Leona’s departing, we can reflect upon a few of her likely estate planning desires, review the related legal techniques used, assess the successes and failures of that planning, and distill some practical implications for today.

This article surveys six probate issues or opportunities, specifically: (i) using a will as the client’s primary dispositive vehicle; (ii) directing that the deceased be buried with valuable property; (iii) directing burial next to a pet; (iv) including long-term burial wishes in a will; (v) bequeathing money for the benefit of a pet or for the maintenance of a mausoleum; and (vi) tying behavior-incentive conditions to a bequest in trust.


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