ESTATE PLANNING: LEARNING FROM THREE FAMOUS TRUST PET TRUST CASES

By Cory Howes

coryNot long ago, pet trusts were thought of as little more than eccentric things that famous people did for their pets when they had too much money. These days, pet trusts are considered mainstream.

In May 2016, Minnesota became the 50th (and final) state to recognize pet trusts. But not every pet trust is enacted according to the owner’s exact wishes. Let’s look at three famous pet trust cases and consider the lessons we can take away from them, so your furry family member can be protected through your plan.

Leona Helmsley and Trouble

Achieving notoriety in the 1980s as the “Queen of Mean,” famed hotelier and convicted tax evader Leona Helmsley passed away in 2007. True to form, her will left two of her grandchildren bereft and awarded her Maltese dog, Trouble, a trust fund valued at $12 million. The probate judge didn’t think much of Helmsley’s logic, however, knocking Trouble’s portion down to a paltry $2 million, awarding $6 million to the two ignored grandchildren, and giving the remainder of the trust to charity. Furthermore, when Trouble died, she was supposed to be buried in the family mausoleum, but instead she was cremated when the cemetery refused to accept her remains.

Lessons learned: Leaving an extravagant sum to a pet may not be honored in a lawsuit and can cause family conflict. Under North Carolina law, you can leave a reasonable amount to provide for the care and lifestyle to which your pet is accustomed, for the rest of his or her life. If you leave an amount that substantially exceeds the amount required to care for your pet(s), the clerk of court can reduce what is left in the pet trust. Moreover, if you are looking to disinherit one or more family members, make sure to specifically talk with your attorney so you can have a game plan to make the disinheritance as legally solid as possible.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles

Most Michael Jackson fans will remember his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, who was the King of Pop’s constant companion. Jackson reportedly left Bubbles $2 million. After the singer’s death, Bubbles’ whereabouts became a point of speculation amid allegations that Jackson had abused the pet while he was alive. The good news is that Bubbles is alive and well, living out his years in a shelter in Florida. The bad news is that if he was actually left $2 million, he never received it; and he is being supported by public donations.

Lessons learned: Always be clear about your intentions and work with your attorney to put them in writing so your furry family member is cared for and doesn’t wind up in a shelter.

Karla Liebenstein and Gunther III (and IV)

Liebenstein, a German countess, left her entire fortune to her German Shepherd, Gunther III, valued at approximately $65 million. Tragically, Gunther III passed away a week later. However, the dog’s inheritance passed on to his son, Gunther IV; the fortune also increased in value over time to more than $373 million, making Gunther IV the richest pet in the world.

Lesson learned: In some jurisdictions, it may be possible for pet trust benefits to be passed generationally. However, in North Carolina, an animal care trust may only provide for pets that are alive at the time the trust is created.

At the Forrest Firm, we’re here to help with all of your estate planning needs, even ensuring your wishes come to fruition for the beloved animals in your life. If you have questions regarding pet trusts and how to take care of your animals long after you’re gone, please contact me today.