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Pet laws

Gail Posner's millionaire dogs, and other cases of pets done good Add to ...

Treated like members of the family, pets are increasingly included in their owners' wills - often much to the dismay of human relatives who find themselves snubbed in favour of the deceased's four-legged best friend. Recently, heiress Gail Posner left a $3-million (all figures U.S.) trust fund and her $8.3-million Miami Beach mansion to her three dogs, Conchita, April Maria and Lucia. (She also left $27-million to her maids, bodyguards and personal trainer.) Her only child, who received $1-million, is challenging the will in court.

While eccentric millionaires go to extremes, making sure your pets are cared for after you die is becoming more common. Toronto estate lawyer Barry Seltzer, author of the new book Fat Cats and Lucky Dogs: How to leave (some of) your estate to your pets, says that at least a third of his clients who have pets ask for provisions for the animals in their wills. Canadian law prohibits leaving money directly to animals, but Seltzer says there are other ways to ensure Fluffy and Fido will live the good life after you've gone to that big dog park in the sky.

Question: In the Gail Posner case, I see one of the arguments that her son is making is that her level of devotion to her dogs is a sign of mental illness. How can you make sure your pets are taken care of while still being considered "of sound mind," as the saying goes?

Barry Seltzer: A bit more background may put this case in perspective. When heiress Gail Posner died in March, her only living child, Bret Carr, learned about an unusual amendment she made to her trust in 2008. The pertinent part of the amended article reads:

A. If the Settlor has any dogs at the time of her death, the following provisions shall apply:

1. The Trustees shall retain the property located at 1525 West 24th Street, Sunset Island #3, Miami Beach, Florida…together with a sum which they shall determine, in their sole and absolute discretion, to be sufficient to pay all of the carrying costs of the Residence…until the death of such of the Settlor's dogs, April Maria, Lucia and Conchita, as shall be living at the time of the Settlor's death and any other dogs owned by the Settlor at the time of her death; provided, however, that such sum so set aside by the Trustees shall not exceed the sum of THREE MILLION ($3,000,000) DOLLARS.

2. The Trustees shall pay over and distribute the sum of FIVE MILLION ($5,000,000) DOLLARS to QUEEN ELIZABETH BECKFORD, if she shall survive the Settlor, and provided that she agrees, to the satisfaction of the Trustees, to care for such of the Settlor's dogs, April Maria, Lucia and Conchita…

Posner then names several alternates if Beckford refuses to care for the dogs "with the same degree of care" they received while Posner cared for them. This could be an expensive task; Conchita has weekly spa appointments, a Cadillac Escalade to take her to those appointments, and a $15,000 Cartier necklace.

When the dogs die, the mansion is to be sold, and the proceeds will go to charity. The remainder of her estate (after several large gifts to caretakers) goes to animal shelters, breast cancer prevention, and suicide-prevention centers. Posner also directed that the canine-care staff take care of her pet turtles as well.

Carr filed a lawsuit in an attempt to revoke Posner's will. He claims (in addition to what you indicate above) that her level of devotion to her dogs is a sign of mental illness, that household aides drugged Posner, told her that Carr was out to kill her, and induced her to change her will and trust in 2008, leaving him only $1-million while the dogs received an $8.3-million mansion and a $3-million trust fund.

However, it would be wrong to say that she had only thought of her dogs while making her will. Most of her staff, including her bodyguard as well as her aides, will also be getting considerably richer and can continue to live in her mansion. The only catch being that they will have to care for her dogs.

There is no 100% guarantee that your wishes regarding your pets will be sacrosanct. In cases where a person has left an excessive amount of money, or other property to a human for the care of a pet, a court can reduce the amount to something it considers more reasonable and distribute the difference to other human beneficiaries. The most common will challenge is highlighted by the case of Leona Helmsley. In death, Ms. Helmsley left most of her estate - estimated at $5-8 billion - to her family charitable trust, which appears to be dedicated to the care of dogs. But the real blockbuster in her will was the $12-million trust fund she left for the care of little Trouble.

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