In the lives of many people in the United States and around the world, their pets are more than … pets. Dogs, cats, and other companion animals truly are parts of their families. As a result, a large swath of people who have furry family members have very real concerns about what will happen to these beloved companions if the human in the house dies before a dog, cat, or other non-people member of the household. As will be discussed later, there are some legal strategies that a person with furry family members can employ to protect these companion animal loved ones after a human counterpart crosses the rainbow bridge.

One of the earlier pioneers of coming up with a strategy to care for a “pet” following the death of the “owner” was none other than a New York City businesswoman known the world over as the “Queen of Mean.” Leona Helmsley and her husband, Harry, were billionaires and were among the largest real estate holders in the United States. Leona and Harry owned some of New York City’s most iconic addresses, including the Empire State Building.

Leona Helmsley: The Face of Helmsley Hotels

Leona herself became the face of the couple’s luxury hotel properties that included the Helmsley Palace Hotel, the Park Lane Hotel, the New York Helmsley Hotel, and five-star properties in Florida and elsewhere in the United States. Playing off the name of the Palace Hotel, the company began a highly effective marketing campaign featuring Leona herself and the tagline of “where the queen stands guard.” The concept was that Leona demanded the very best for her hotel guests.

Drawing from the queen of the Helmsley Palace and other properties, Leona became known as the queen of mean in short speed. She had a well-deserved reputation for being a truly tyrannical employer, an image which she cultivated to some degree.

Leona’s Later Life

Ultimately, Leona and her husband were charged with tax evasion. Due to poor health, Harry was dismissed from the case; Leona was convicted and ultimately spent about 19 months in federal prison. Once released, and following the death of her husband, Leona spent the remainder of her life in relative seclusion, living with her dog – a white Maltese named Trouble.

Estate Planning for Trouble When Leona Died

As part of her estate planning, Leona created a $12 million trust for Trouble. She passed away in 2007, with Trouble living four more years, enjoying the benefits of the trust. After Leona’s death, a probate judge would reduce the amount of the trust to $2 million, reasoning the much larger amount was unnecessary. Most of her wealth went into a charitable trust, which is worth about $8 billion today.

Trouble was indeed well tended to during his life, following Leona’s death. The pooch lived in Florida and was cared for by the general manager of the Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel. He was paid $60,000 annually to care for the pooch. $100,000 was spent annually on security for the dog, because Trouble was the target of death threats. Grooming bills were $8,000 and $1,200 was spent on food each year.

Estate and Probate Law and Pets

Divorce and probate laws pertaining to pets have seen some changes across the United States in the past 20 years. Historically, dogs, cats, and other pets were property, comparable to a chair. The reality is that in a majority of homes, pets are something much more significant that a piece of furniture or other type of property. Over time, laws have adjusted somewhat to recognize this reality.

When it comes to probate law, from California to New York and states in between, an animal cannot directly inherit property. Federal and state laws across the United States do not permit animals the legal ability to own property directly, a fact that precludes inheritance.

What can be done is the creation of a trust to benefit a pet after a person dies. Through such a trust, a specific individual is named to care for a pet following the death of the creator of the trust. The named individual receives a set amount of money for the express benefit of the pet. That person typically is paid some sort of additional fee or stipend for tending to the care of a companion animal following the death of that pet’s human.

By taking this course, a person has the peace of mind knowing that a formal legal structure is in place to provide for the care of a furry family member should that individual die during the lifetime of the pet. If you are intent on such an arrangement for your own furry family member, you should consult with an estate lawyer to ensure that you this type of trust arrangement to benefit for companion animal is appropriately established.