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Date published: 8/15/2011
LOS ANGELES--You don't have to be Leona Helmsley to want the best for your pet after you die.
She'd left her dog Trouble $12 million when she passed away in 2007. A judge cut the award to $2 million and awarded some money to her grandchildren, but the Maltese lived a life of luxury until his death in December.
Pet estate planning has grown since Helmsley's will made headlines. Today there are retirement homes for pets across the country, and at least 45 states allow pet trusts--an agreement that specifies how an owner wants a pet cared for, who will be responsible, how it will be financed.
There are also attorneys who specialize in pet trusts, along with how-to books like "Who Will Care When You're Not There?" by tax attorneys Robert E. Kass and Elizabeth A. Carrie and "Petriarch: The Complete Guide to Financial and Legal Planning for a Pet's Continued Care" by animal attorney Rachel Hirschfeld. She wrote a pet protection agreement that is legally binding and can be found online for as little as $39. Other online resources include a free planning guide from the Humane Society called "Providing for Your Pet's Future Without You" at humanesociety.org/petsin
Exactly how many pets are abandoned after owners die is unknown, says Richard Avanzino, former president of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but his guess is 2 percent of surrendered animals--150,000 dogs and cats a year. In 1979, he went to court to prevent euthanization of a dog whose owner, Mary Murphy, committed suicide. Murphy left a will instructing that her 11-year-old dog be euthanized.
"She didn't think anybody else could take care of her in the same pampered, loving way," said Avanzino. A judge ruled disposal of personal property does not extend to killing a living creature.
The case prompted the San Francisco SPCA to set up one of the nation's first sanctuaries for pets who outlive their owners.
A few veterinary schools offer options like lifetime care for pets and placement in a home.
Some owners leave money to whomever they're entrusting their pet to so the animal does not become a financial burden. Unfortunately, sometimes when large sums are involved, Avanzino said, "greed gets in the way."
In one case, he said, a cat was to be cared for by a maid and butler who were to get free room and board as long as the cat was alive. "The first time we saw the cat, we estimated it was 8 years old. Four years later, the cat was about 4 and the next time, the cat they brought in and said was the same cat, was estimated to be about 1."
In another case, the owner of a German shepherd left relatives use of an estate as long as the dog lived. "They kept it alive almost two years on life support. The dog was totally incapable of moving," Avanzino said.