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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Pets, Wills

When Leona Helmsley died a couple of weeks ago, she reportedly left millions for her dog. We've all heard about the people who do this, and I have to assume that it is relatively uncommon to leave such a large sum for pets in your will. Other websites do recommend making sure that your will does make provision for the care of pets and give you tips on how to do this... there is even a whole BOOK on the subject!

In 1996, 7 states reportedly had laws allowing owners to set up trust funds for their pets after the owners' deaths (The Buffalo News, August 24, 1996: p.B10). By 2002, that number had jumped to 17 (Houston Chronicle, April 22, 2002: p.01). Since then, at least Ohio has passed a similar law, and possibly other states as well.

In general, leaving money to the cats directly is not particularly enforceable by the courts nor is leaving the cat to someone's care a surefire thing, which is why the trust fund idea has boomed. In the abovementioned book, the author apparently notes that "The law will regard the clause in your will where you bequeath money or property to your pets after death as the equivalent of leaving your car to your washing machine." A whole company, PetGuardian has grown up just for the creation of such trust plans. There is also a report of a custody battle over a dog after the owner's death.

Still, all of this must be a recent phenomenon, right? Aaah, no.

In a quick search on, I found a few mentions of this practice in historical newspapers, but all from the 20th century. The earliest I found was this one from 1903:
Sandusky, Ohio Sandusky Evening Star
16 Jan 1903
"Tiffin O Jan 16 - What purports to be the last will of Mrs. Charlotte M. Hoyt the New York multimillionaire was filed here dated Sept 9, 1902. It postdates the other two wills. Judge J.H. Dunn of Tiffin who was in charge of her interests since her removal to Tiffin two years ago is bequeathed the residue of her estate valued at several hundred thousand. Her father Casper Guss of Tiffin gets $100 a month during his life and the New York Humane society $50 per month for the care of her pets."

Here is another, where the relatives contested the will:
Lincoln, Nebraska Evening State Journal
13 Oct 1938
"Left Money to Pets
Dogs and cats frequently at odds were united in a common cause when relatives of Mrs. May Gavin asked the orphans court to nullify her will setting aside $3000 for the lifetime care of her pets."
Then I found this book on Google Books, which has a whole chapter entitled "Wills in Favour of Dumb Animals". Although the most interesting parts (the actual text of most of the wills) are hidden from view because of copyrights, it clearly demonstrates that people have been leaving money to pets since the seventeenth century.

A compilation of some other funny will clauses can be found here (no guarantees regarding accuracy).



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