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The Legal Beagle

Legal Beagle

Trouble in Paradise

Leona Helmsley, the infamous New York hotel queen who died in August, left her Maltese dog, Trouble, $12 million dollars in her will. But at least one person, a former worker for Mrs. Helmsley who claims to have been bit by the dog, is looking to sink her teeth into the dog's inheritance. Learn how you can legally provide for your pets in your will with a minimum of well, "Trouble," in the article below.

Heirs to the Bone - Estate Planning for Pets
By Frances Carlisle, Esq.

(Our regular legal columnist, Karen Copeland, had her esteemed colleague Frances Carlisle fill in for her on the important subject of estate planning for pets.)

As a trusts and estates attorney, I hear many sad stories about beloved companion animals ending up at shelters after their owners die. The beginning of the new year is a good time to make a resolution to plan for the care of your pets.

Make a Bequest of Your Animals To a Caretaker
One of the simplest means of providing for the care of your companion animals after your death is to find a friend or family member willing to take and care for them, and then have your attorney draft a Will leaving the animals to that person. (You should find alternate persons to be named in the Will, as the first-named person may be unable to take the animals when the time comes.) Alternatively, the Will could be drafted to give your executor the discretion to select from among several persons named by you to take your animals. If possible, you should leave a sum of money to the person taking your animals to defray the costs of their care.

If you have no one who is able and willing to take the animals, your executor can be given the authority to find suitable adoptive homes for the animals. If you do this, it is wise to select an executor who has some knowledge of and concern for your animals.

Another alternative is to search for a good local animal rescue and placement charity and make arrangements in advance with the charity to take the animals after your death and find homes for them. The charity should be named in your Will to take the animals and to receive a cash legacy. Obtain detailed information about the charity's adoption procedures and be comfortable with such procedures before you make such arrangements.

Anytime animals are bequeathed to a person or charity, the Will should include a statement that you are bequeathing all the animals owned by you at the time of your death. If you name specific animals in your Will, it will not cover animals adopted later.

Create a Trust for Your Animals
New York, New Jersey and most other states now have "pet trust statutes." These statutes allow you to create a trust for your animals. You can create a pet trust and name a trustee and a caretaker for your animals.

There are two methods of creating a pet trust. First, a trust under the Will, called a testamentary trust, can be created. Or, an inter vivos trust, which is created during the life of the pet owner, can be created. The inter vivos trust has the advantage of being immediately available for the care of an animal if the pet owner, for example, has to go into a nursing home or becomes incapacitated.

A pet trust can be funded with a specific amount of cash or with assets other than cash. I have clients who are rich with animal companions but who have very little money. Some have taken out life insurance policies and made the pet trust the beneficiary of the policy to assure the good care of their pets.

Birds, Reptiles, Horses -- Pets with Long Life Spans
The New York and New Jersey pet trust statutes have a maximum duration of 21 years. While this period of time is fine for most dogs and cats, it presents a problem for certain other species, such as parrots who can live 80 years or more, or horses who can live 30 years or more. If you have animals likely to live longer than 21 years, your attorney has to be creative in developing an estate plan for these animals. My recommendation is to have the client select an animal sanctuary that cares for the types of animals that the client has, and make the sanctuary the remainderman of the pet trust. There are bird sanctuaries, for example, that care for parrots and other long-lived birds. The sanctuary could take the bird and the trust fund remainder at the end of the 21-year period when the trust terminates.

An alternative to the trust for animals would be to find a sanctuary and leave the animals (and funds for the animals' care) outright to the sanctuary on condition that they keep and care for the animals for life. No trust would be created--the animals would go directly to the sanctuary as an outright bequest.

Many attorneys who do estate planning for their clients ignore planning for the care of companion animals, and it may simply not cross an otherwise devoted pet-owner's mind. It's up to you to insist that careful estate planning be done to assure continuing good care for your companion animals after you're gone. They may not survive without such planning.

Frances Carlisle is a long-time member of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York's Committee on Legal Issues Pertaining to Animals, and has just been appointed as the chair of the newly formed Animal Trust Subcommittee, which is part of the American Bar Association's Animal Law Committee. She has written articles and is a frequent lecturer on the topic of estate planning and has appeared on various television shows to discuss the importance of estate planning to provide for the continuing care of companion animals. You can contact her directly at

Do you have a legal question for Ms. Copeland? Email it to She may answer it in a future issue of New York Tails!

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Most recent update: 9/5/07
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