Pet Trust: will your wishes be honored after your death?

Leona Helmsley left $12 million to her dog Trouble at her death, which was just a portion of her $8 Billion estate.  Trouble just died, 4 years after the bequeath.

Trouble Helmsley


Facts indicate Trouble may have needed that $12 million to maintain her lifestyle: she was a television star, featuring in ads for Helmsley's hotels, she wore cashmere sweaters from the finest department stores, and she had a penchant for cream cheese and a Mediterranean diet of steamed vegetables, grilled chicken, and fish... all fed to her by human hand from a silver platter.

Helmsley's heirs raised a ruckus at such a gift to a dog, and Trouble's fortune was reduced to $2 million.
Helmsley had also asked that Trouble be buried beside her in the cemetery, but that too has been denied- Trouble has been cremated, and her ashes are in family custody.

Despite an $8 billion estate, family litigation bit Helmsley's intent from behind


Do you have a beloved horse written into your will?
Are you concerned about the care and upkeep of your herd and personal menagerie of pets after your death?

While the gift to Trouble seems to be on the border of outrageous, the desire to ensure that your animal is cared for after death, at a standard it is used to, is perfectly valid.

Case-law history has been a little inconsistent with gifts to pets- after all, a pet is considered property under U.S. law.  And in this area the law is often quiet sensitive to a state-by-state approach.
It is safer to set up a trust specifically designed to care for a pet, and the assets should be put in the name of the anticipated caregiver, the trustee, rather than the name of the pet itself.
Then when your horse dies, the assets of the pet trust revert to your primary trust and are distributed according to your wishes.

Trust planning is important, and for many horse owners, better than a simple will to provide for the care of your horses.

If you haven't yet prepared a will or trust providing for your pet, I encourage you to make that a goal before 2012.  
But until you meet with your lawyer, today you can prepare a simple letter on your own dictating what kind of care your horse(s) need on a daily-basis and put the letter in an easy to find location.  If you were to drop dead today, would your family and friends know exactly what to do with your horses?  Do you know who would take them, and where they would go?  

As we learn from Leona Helmsley and Trouble, you have little control from the grave (even if you leave $8 billion to your family!), so make sure you have a sound, legal document and plan for your horses and pets.
Remember, verbal agreements and understandings are almost never reliable!

I know wills and trusts is inevitably a morbid subject, but I encourage you to make a plan- for the sake of your horses, and to help prevent fighting or misunderstanding among your heirs and friends.