Consider charitable contribution to honor man’s best friend

By Andrew Zashin*

Andrew Zashin and his best friend, Hugo

Man’s best friend. A part of the family. Every day, dogs demonstrate their love and loyalty to their owners, which has inspired owners to leave some – or even all – of their estates to their beloved companions to ensure that these animals are well cared for after the owner’s death.

This may sound ridiculous, but it is not. More and more estate planning attorneys are incorporating provisions for prized pups into wills and trusts, and are requiring owners to consider things like what assets owners wish to leave for the pet’s care and well-being; who will care for the pet; and, what happens to any remaining assets set aside for the pet’s care after the animal’s death. Family lawyers are routinely asked to fight dog custody cases and even put together “pet parenting plans.” Some states even have statutes dealing specifically with pet custody! Pet issues, therefore, are real and can be complicated.

The most famous example of a pet-focused estate plan belongs to Leona Helmsley, a billionaire real estate mogul and hotelier who left a $12 million trust fund for her beloved dog, a Maltese named Trouble, while leaving nothing to two of her grandchildren. A court found that this $12 million inheritance exceeded the amount required to care for Trouble during her expected lifetime and ultimately reduced the trust to $2 million. In her estate planning, Helmsley entrusted her brother with Trouble’s care, but when he decided that he did not want to care for Trouble, one of Helmsley’s longtime staff members stepped up and cared for the pooch. When Trouble died in 2010, the remainder of the money set aside for her care reverted to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, which Helmsley intended to provide for the “care and welfare of dogs.” The Helmsley Charitable Trust’s mission has since shifted to non-animal related causes.

Other notable examples of pet-prioritized estates include that of Gail Posner, who left her $8.4 million Miami Beach mansion and a $3 million trust to her three pups, and fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld, who similarly left a portion of his estimated $300 million net worth to his Birman cat, Choupette. While it is unclear what Posner and Lagerfeld intended for the remainder of the assets left to their respective pets after the death of each animal, this is an important question for pet owners to consider.

If an owner does not name a person or an entity to receive the remainder of the assets left for the care of a pet, the assets may revert to the owner’s estate after the pet’s death. This leads some owners to name a specific individual, like the person who provided care for the pet after the owner’s death, to receive the remainder of the assets. Others, like Helmsley, choose to honor the memory of their cherished family members and direct that any remaining assets from those set aside for the care and well-being of their pets be donated to a pet-focused charitable organization.

There are many charitable organizations committed to helping rescue and improve the lives of dogs and other animals, both locally and nationwide. I encourage you to consider contributing to pet-focused organizations like the Cleveland Animal Protective League, the Sanctuary for Senior Dogs, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as well as to consider incorporating your pets and organizations like these into your estate planning. Man’s best friend will thank you for thinking of them.

This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.