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Wealthy folks are turning pets into hairy heirs

Everybody knows it's not a dog's life to be rich, but no one knows this better than a rich person's dog.
Pet-A-Porter - Fashion Show
Lily the Chihuahua is dressed as Vivienne Westwood Bride at a Pet-A-Porter dog Fashion Show and champagne reception celebrating Harrods' wide range of doggie fashions, at Harrods Knightsbridge in London, England.Jo Hale / Getty Images FILE
/ Source: Forbes

Everybody knows it's not a dog's life to be rich, but no one knows this better than a rich person's dog.

Leona Helmsley, dubbed the "Queen of Mean" for personifying the 1980s stereotype of greed and excess, made her pet Maltese, Trouble, her biggest heir, leaving a $12 million trust fund for the pet in a will that disinherits two grandchildren and doesn't even mention great-grandchildren.

Helmsley, who died last week, put contingencies on the inheritances of the two grandchildren who will actually get some money: They have to visit their father's grave site once a year. No such demands are made of Trouble.

And her chauffeur got $100,000.

‘The only true love’
Sound wacky? It may be, but it isn't rare. Inheritances for pets are not uncommon among the wealthy, according to Russ Alan Prince, of Prince & Associates, who tracks the habits of the rich. That's especially true of people who tend to alienate all other humans in their lives.

"For some wealthy people, the only true love they get is from their pets," Prince says. "They're estranged from their children, they are at war with their business partners, but their pets are always there for them."

It would not be a stretch to put Helmsley in that camp, if tabloid tales of her terrorizing employees and executives of her husband's real estate empire are to be believed. She is perhaps most infamous for telling a housekeeper that "only the little people pay taxes," a comment that came out during her trial for tax evasion in the late 1980s.

Trouble once appeared in ads for Helmsley hotels and no doubt led a pampered life. The dog is to be buried alongside Helmsley and her husband, Harry Helmsley, in their $1.4 million mausoleum in suburban New York.

According to Prince, rich people who love to lavish money on their pets (a category he calls "pet-focused") spend $328,000 on their pets annually. His survey, released this year, included 304 affluent families who describe themselves as pet lovers, 46% of whom say their love is singularly focused on their own pets and the rest who are animal lovers in general. The survey group was 58% female with a mean age of 56 and a mean net worth of $46.7 million.

The biggest spending area is in "life enrichment" services.

This includes everything from deep-muscle massage (pet masseuses can make up to $2,000 an hour, Prince says) and psychic readings to life coaching and "cosmic sensitivity."

One-third of pet-focused owners paid for special diets for their pets, not for medical purposes, mind you, but because it was seen as being good for the animals. This includes meals prepared by famous chefs.

More than a fourth of pet-focused owners surveyed said they spend $25,000 or more on wardrobes for their pets. Yes, 25 thousand.

Even better, 16% of pet-focused owners recently surveyed by Prince & Associates spend $25,000 or more on a birthday party for a pet.

Several pets regularly fly around on private aircraft, alone (except for flight crew).

Raising the bar
But pet inheritances really raise the bar. More than a quarter of so-called pet-focused owners surveyed had established trusts for their pets in their wills before their deaths. This makes it harder for surviving family members to fight the will, Prince says, and ensures the owner will have at least some say in what happens to the pet after the owner's death.

Seventy-eight percent of pet-focused owners leave money to pets in their wills, to the tune of $526,000, according to Prince. Mostly, the money is to ensure a quality of life for the pet.

Pet trusts are increasingly popular, so much so that 39 states now have statutes outlining them, says Frances Carlisle, a New York estate lawyer who specializes in pet trusts. In most cases, the trusts left behind are small, in the $30,000 range, and meant to ensure that the pet left behind has adequate care and won't be dumped on the street or sent to a shelter.

Because pets are pets, money cannot be left to them directly in a will, so trusts are the next best thing to leaving money to a designated guardian, Carlisle says. The stigma of the kooky old rich lady, present company excluded, is gone. "This sort of thing used to be laughed at," Carlisle says. "But a lot of animals really do end up on the street."

Sometimes the arrangements are punitive, however, and directed at getting revenge on family members.

Prince says he knows of an ostrich that stands to inherit $4 million, all because the owner's children once threatened to cut the ostrich up into food. Somewhere out there a parrot stands between his owner and the owner's children, who stand to lose tens of millions of inheritance money if they fail to follow specific instructions about the parrot's safekeeping and well-being after the owner's death.

"True pet lovers can be off-the-wall already, and what you're doing here is adding money to it," Prince says. So true.