Leona Helmsley and the Pet Trust--An Example of Bad Estate Planning

June 8, 2012

Anyone who owns a pet knows the love that can be shared between a human and an animal. Not surprisingly, many people want to make sure their pet is properly cared for in the event of their death in the same way they want to make sure family members are taken care of financially. One way to do that is to create a pet trust. Although a pet trust is a wonderful estate planning tool, be sure that you do not create a probate nightmare as a result of the terms of your pet trust as did the late Leona Helmsley.
For anyone not familiar with the story, Leona Helmsley was a New York hotel heiress who was known as the “Queen of Mean”. Upon her husband’s death, Helmsley bought a Maltese puppy whom she named Trouble. Trouble was an apt name as it turns out.
Helmsley created a pet trust for her beloved pooch and designated a whopping $12 million to fund the trust. As if this excessive amount was not enough to raise the attention of the probate court charged with overseeing her estate upon her death, she also disinherited many close family members, including some of her grandchildren. After a lengthy court battle, the trust was decreased by the court to $2 million and Trouble lived out the rest of his life in luxury.
Given Helmsley’s reputation, it may actually have been her intention to cause a probate battle upon her death; however, most people strive for the opposite--an estate free from challenges and lengthy probate battles. If your goal is to be sure your pets are cared for, by all means fund the trust with sufficient funds to care for your pet after your death.  In most states that authorize a pet trust, there is a provision that requires the principal of the trust to be a reasonable amount.  This opens the trust to challenge in a court if the remaining beneficiaries consider the amount you have specified to be unreasonable. Take a lesson from Leona -  steer clear of an excessive amount that begs for an estate challenge to be filed.

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