More People Leaving Money to Their Pets

The Associated Press
Thursday, August 30, 2007; 7:43 PM

NEW YORK -- Leona Helmsley's decision to leave $12 million to her dog so it could live out its life in luxury proved once and for all that she was not one of the little people.

But legal experts say that, size aside, Helmsley's gift to her beloved pet _ a Maltese named Trouble _ wasn't unique.

A growing number of people, not all wealthy, have been setting up trust funds or adjusting their wills to ensure that their pets are well cared for if they die, according to attorneys and animal welfare groups.

States have rushed to make such gifts easier. At the close of the 1990s, only a handful recognized so-called "pet trusts." Now, 39 states plus Washington, D.C., have enacted laws dealing with such gifts.

The types of bequests vary. Some well-off Americans go as far as to set aside tens of thousands of dollars to allow their pets to continue to live comfortably in their past homes with a professional caretaker, rather than be shipped off to a relative.

Others leave money for future veterinary bills, or just to compensate a new owner for taking on the responsibility of a new dog or cat.

Rachel Hirschfeld, an estate lawyer in New York who specializes in pet trusts, said the idea isn't so crazy.

"People really think of their pets as their babies," she said.

Yes, she said, gifts like Helmsley's are extraordinary. Her clients more commonly leave $5,000 to $10,000, although she had one who set aside $5 million.

Tales about eccentric millionaires leaving chunks of their fortune to a pet go back decades, but the creation of trusts for that purpose became easier in 1990 because of an update of the Uniform Probate Code, a model upon which many states base their laws regarding wills.

Animal welfare groups have also lobbied for a federal bill that would create tax benefits for a pet owner who creates such a trust, then leaves the remaining money to charity when the animal dies.

Sara Amundson, a director of legislative affairs for the Humane Society of the United States, said even a small gift can keep a pet from winding up in dire straits.

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