Pet Provisions in Wills: Keeping Fido in the Bling-Bling

Americans love their pets. Eighty-seven percent of us think of Fluffy, Fido, and other feathered or scaly creatures as part of our families. Indeed, many of us probably prefer our pets to certain family members. Nearly 80 percent of us give our pets gifts for birthdays and holidays - everything from designer doggy totes to regular old catnip. It should come as no surprise, then, that more and more wills are providing for pets.

Stories of celebrities leaving outrageous sums of money for the care of their pets have brought this phenomenon into the mainstream. Doris Duke, daughter of "Buck" Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Company and North Carolina's DukeUniversity, left $100 million in trust for the care of her dog, Minnie. This provision, which took up three paragraphs in the eccentric tobacco heiress' will, withstood the executor's subsequent challenge.

British singer Dusty Springfield made sure her Californian Rag Doll cat, Nicholas, was well cared for after her death. Nicholas was to sleep in a bed lined with Springfield's nightgown and be serenaded by his owner's music. Also, Nicholas was to be fed only imported baby food for at least one year following Springfield's death. When Natalie Schafer died (a.k.a. Mrs. Thurston Howell, III of "Gilligan's Island"), her entire estate went to the dog, so to speak.

Celebrity pets aren't the only ones living in the lap of luxury when their owners pass on.

Even the pet plans of still living celebrities make the news. Betty White's entire $5 million dollar estate will reportedly benefit her animals. Oprah Winfrey is said to have set aside a considerable chunk of change for the care of her dogs upon the talk show host's demise.

Celebrity pets aren't the only ones living in the lap of luxury when their owners pass on. Common folk provide for their pets as well and often wind up in the media spotlight, proving that some people's fifteen minutes come a bit too late. For example, Eleanor Ritchey left $5 million for the care of over 100 stray dogs that lived on her Florida ranch. Another animal lover left a $200,000 trust for the care of a prized kitty, perhaps making Doris Duke's Minnie just a tad envious.

Mother England has approved will provisions to benefit specific animals for over 100 years. But the U.S. is just catching up. A direct testamentary gift of money or property to an animal is not permitted because pets themselves are property, no matter how often we allow them to sleep in our beds (79% of us cuddle up with our four-legged friends). Pet trusts have become the popular alternative, with nearly half of all states accepting their validity.

A boost for pet trusts came in the early 1990s when they were first approved in the Uniform Probate Code. Some states have adopted this provision specifically declaring the validity and enforceability of pet trusts, while others have opened the way for pet bequests in other ways.

These days it's both easy and increasingly common to set up your pet for life after your death. One caveat: when establishing a pet trust, choose your words and the trustee carefully. Reports of fraud in the execution of pet provisions are not uncommon. One millionaire provided a pet trust for his dogs with the remaining money going to his relatives when the last dog died. His relatives promptly had the dogs euthanized. Additionally, some greedy trustees, seeking to prolong trust payments, substituted look-alike cats and dogs after the original pets died.

Regardless of your financial situation, providing for the care of your pets after your death is important. Especially since you are probably among that 87% who considers your faithful companion a family member. Indeed, planning for pet care after the owner's death has become akin to self-imposed alimony. Owners want Fluffy and Fido to maintain the same lifestyle, even after the owner's death.

So, for Oprah's cocker spaniels, you lucky dogs—you'll be bling-blinging all the way to Doggie Heaven.