Eat your hearts out, humans. Earlier this year three Chihuahuas were left an $8.3 million mansion and a $3 million trust fund when heiress Gail Posner passed away in March 2010.

These three aren’t the only pampered pooches out there. When Leona Hemsley died in 2007 she left $12 million to her beloved Maltese Trouble. Challenges to her will resulted in the amount being reduced to $2 million, but her dog is still set for life. Other celebrities have also included provisions in their wills or created trusts for their animals:

  • Tobacco heiress Doris Duke’s dog received $100,000
  • British singer Dusty Springfield’s cat Nicholas received a lifetime supply of his favorite meal, imported baby food
  • Actress Betty White’s pets are rumored to be the sole beneficiaries of her million-dollar estate

But pet trusts are not just for celebrities. Over the past decade, 16 states have made it legal for pet owners to set up trust funds for the benefit of their pets, just as they would for minor children. And owners are typically very generous: trade journal Lawyers Weekly USA reports that such bequests average about $25,000.

From Ludicrous to Legitimate

For centuries, courts frowned on the practice, insisting that the trusts must have a human beneficiary. But Americans own about 68 million dogs and 73 million cats, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, and there has been steady pressure on legal systems toward “pet trusts.” As a result, says Gerry Beyer, an estate law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, the concept has gone “from something that seems laughable to something that’s very mainstream, almost overnight.”

The biggest step came in a 1993, when the Uniform Probate Code, which is a model used by many state systems, first recognized pets as beneficiaries for as long as the pets lived. The states quickly followed suit, passing laws of their own. So far, says Lawyers Weekly editor Paul Martinek, “dozens if not hundreds” of pet trusts have been established.

Cat or Cash Cow?

Executing such trusts, however, has its challenges. For one thing, there’s no way for a pet to tell a probate judge that the trustee is skimming the monthly stipends. For another, dishonest executors have figured out creative ways of “extending” the pampered pet’s life indefinitely. One woman in California, entrusted with a nondescript black cat, simply replaced it after it died-not once but twice. She was on her third cat when the authorities finally got wise.

In some states, setting up a pet trust is simply a matter of adding a sentence or two to an existing will. Because laws vary from state to state, anyone interested in creating a trust for their pet should speak to a lawyer in the area experienced in handling pet trusts.


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