Law 561A/B - The Dead Hand

Jill R. Horwitz

Jill R. Horwitz

Vice Dean for Faculty and Intellectual Life and Professor of Law
B.A. Northwestern University, 1988
M.P.P. Harvard University, 1994
J.D. Harvard University, 1997
Ph.D. Harvard University, 2002
(310) 206-1577
Course Description:

A few years ago, billionaire Leona Helmsley – the self-proclaimed Queen of Mean -- died of congestive heart failure.  Many people thought that her death would mark the end of her, but she may have the last laugh from her grave.  She left more than $4 billion to her charitable trust, all of it to be used to benefit dogs.  One dog made out particularly well; Helmsley left $12 million to her Maltese, Trouble.  Some grandchildren received a substantial inheritance (although less than that of her dog) on the condition that they visit their father’s grave annually.  Other grandchildren received nothing.

In a judgment that shocked the nonprofit world, a Manhattan Surrogate Judge reduced Trouble’s fund from $12 million to $2 million and directed the rest to the charitable trust. Later, after declaring that Helmsley had been mentally unfit when she executed her will, the judge directed several million to the disinherited grandchildren.

What happens when people make mischief from beyond the grave?  In literature, true princesses live in poverty, lovers are kept apart, and lives are spent in miserable adherence to the terms of a manipulative will.  On the other (dead) hand, maybe previous generations have some wisdom that we don’t.  Could Leona Helmsley be on to something that will only be revealed once her trust is used as she intended?  Maybe Helmsley's grandchildren should visit their father's grave?  Maybe your mother knows that the guy you have your eye on is a scoundrel and only after your inheritance?

In this perspectives course we will consider these issues through looking at some famous, contemporary charities scandals (e.g. the Robinson case involving potential misuse of $800 million of Princeton’s restricted endowment, the Barnes Foundation, and even Helmsley’s will).  We will also look at fictional accounts of how the law allows the dead hand to strangle -- or help, depending on your perspective -- the living.  We will talk with fundraisers who must negotiate gift agreements to balance the future needs of charities with the wishes of donors.

Meeting dates:  7-9:30 pm.
Thursday September 24.
Thursday October 22
Tuesday January 26
Tuesday February 23
Tuesday March 8