Can I Leave Everything to My Dog?

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When Leona Helmsley passed away, it was front-page news. It wasn't just because she had been known as the notorious “Queen of Mean” during her lifetime, but because Helmsley left $12 million in trust for her dog, Trouble. With a quick internet search, you can easily find even more unusual will provisions by all types of people. Maybe you are not going to go to quite the same extreme when making your last will, but you still may have reasons to leave your estate to beings other than your immediate family. With careful planning, you can execute a solid estate plan that honors your wishes and holds up in court.

You Do Not Have Heirs

While it varies from state to state, generally your spouse gets the entirety of your estate if you have minor children. If you have no spouse or children, then your closest living relatives will likely be sought by the probate court. So, if you have a friend (or pet) who is closer to you than your family members—or if there is a charitable cause you wish to support—make sure your will outlines that specifically. Once you have notified the friend or the organization’s accounting office, make sure you get your will witnessed and notarized.

You Do Not Wish to Leave Your Estate to Your Heirs

You may wish to specifically exclude certain family members or just omit their names and bequests from your will. There is a variety of reasons you may want to exclude someone from your will: you’ve made other arrangements or previous gifts to the heir, the heir is less in need of financial support than other heirs, or you simply don’t want to leave property to a certain person.

Now, About Fido...

If you really do find it best to leave everything to a beloved pet, the short answer is that you can. Be aware, however, that unconventional wills or provisions can be subject to greater scrutiny by probate judges and courts. For this reason, it is best to have a lawyer review your paperwork. Most states require that you be mentally competent when making your will. Not only can your lawyer vouch for your mental state, but he or she can also help you word the provisions in a manner that will reduce unnecessary examination. In addition, you will want to choose trustworthy witnesses for your will. In the event that dissatisfied family members do contest your will, your witnesses will have to testify in court that you were, as the old saying goes, of sound mind and body.

Ultimately, whatever your reasons are for choosing alternative heirs, the estate is still yours. You get to decide how it is handled.