Estate Planning: Caring for Pets

Leona Helmsley, nicknamed "the Queen of Mean", left $12 million in her trust to care for her Maltese dog, Trouble.  Rumor has it that she had few friends, so it was appropriate for her to leave more money to her dog than to people.  She left around $10 million to two grandsons and the rest of her estate, estimated as worth between $3 billion and $8 billion, went to the Helmsley Charitable trust.  She stated that the mission of the trust should be to provide for the care of dogs.  Even though she only owned a dog later in life and gave away another dog which she was given as a gift (named "Double Trouble), because she didn't really like him.  She still decided to change her trust two years prior to death to only provide for dogs and deleted the previous mission which also included caring for "poor children". 

The interesting part of this trust, is that even though it would seem Leona, as a bilionaire, would have had very experienced attorneys, they did make some legal mistakes in writing her will.

First, Leona requests her dog to be buried beside her when it passes away.  However, she is buried in a human cemetery and New York state law does not allow animals to be buried in human cemeteries.  People can be buried in pet cemeteries but not the other way around in New York.  This was an error by her attorney in not checking New York state law regarding pet burial. 

Second, her dog is 9 years old and has a variety of medical issues, which combined with the life-expectancy of a Maltese means Trouble will probably live only another 5 years.  It seems that the attorneys managing her trust could not come up with a way to spend $12 million on a dog (even with the best dog food and spa treatments) in 5 years.  And, Leona didn't specify how the dog should be cared for and what the money should be spent on.  Lawyers managing her trust have decided $2 million will be more than ample for the dog's care (and because the relatives Leona left the dog to actually didn't want the burden of caring for the dog, one of her hotel employees is being paid $5,000 a month to care for Trouble).  The lawyers then arranged for the other $10 million that was left to Trouble to go back to Leona's charitable trust.

According to a recent New Yorker magazine article, only 38 states allow for "pet trusts" in order for people to provide for the care of their pets after they die.  However, the law is still catching up with the nuances these trusts present.  It is probably important to be a little more specific in how the money is to be used when leaving it in a trust to a pet, since the pet cannot effectively communicate their wishes for spending the money.  Especially in Leona's case, since it turns out the people she wanted to care for Trouble did not really want the dog, and the day-to-day care and love from a human owner is probably what a pet most wants when their owner passes away.

A website that assists with pet trusts:






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Comments (1) -

  • Rachael Larson

    11/10/2008 8:12:52 PM | Reply

    THis is not about estate planning, but I wanted to mention that I visit several elderly people and I always take my little dog.  (Be sure to check with them before the first visit).  My friends enjoy his visits as much as they enjoy me (maybe more!) and they are disappointed if they don't find him at the door with me.  Many elderly dog lovers can no longer keep pets and a visit means a little break from the usual in their days.


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