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New law to enforce bequests for pets

July 23, 2008|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A year after billionaire hotelier Leona Helmsley bequeathed $12 million to her dog, Trouble, thousands of California cats and canines may soon be in the money too -- though perhaps not so deep -- thanks to a measure signed Tuesday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The bill the governor signed into law provides for enforcement of "pet trusts" set up by animal owners to pay for continuing care for Spot and Mr. Whiskers after the owner's demise.

Unlike most states, California law has treated pet trust funds as honorary and therefore the trusts are often unenforceable, said state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), whose law will take effect Jan. 1.

"Pets are an important part of the American family," Yee said Tuesday. "SB 685 will make pet trusts enforceable and assure that the wishes of pet owners are respected."

The measure was supported by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which estimated that "well over" half of American households have at least one pet.

Many pet owners do not have relatives or friends who could take the animals.

Perhaps the most famous pet trust was revealed after the August 2007 death of Helmsley, who left $12 million in a trust for the care of Trouble, her Maltese, while leaving nothing to two of her grandchildren. A New York City surrogate judge recently reduced the trust fund for the 9-year-old dog to $2 million.

Under such trusts, a trustee pays a caretaker to ensure that the pets are housed, fed and otherwise maintained, said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Los Angeles office of the animal welfare society. But she said pet owners have to account for their pets during estate planning or the animal may not be cared for.

Taxpayer activist Lew Uhler ridiculed lawmakers for focusing on pet trusts when the state was facing a $15-billion budget deficit and threatening to cut funds for children.

"If the Legislature has nothing better to do than mess with this kind of legislation, we really do need to rethink whether we need a full-time Legislature," said Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee.

SB 685 removes the discretion of trustees in fulfilling the trust, Yee said. It also allows courts to appoint a caregiver if the trustee does not wish to arrange for the pet care.

Schwarzenegger left unanswered Tuesday whether his action will benefit Spunky, Sarge and Gustav, his family's yellow Labrador retriever, cockapoo and chocolate Lab. A spokeswoman cited privacy issues in declining to say whether the governor's dogs will someday get a cut of the former movie star's millions.

The governor signed 32 other bills into law Tuesday, including one making it a misdemeanor to buy, sell or butcher a non-ambulatory animal for human consumption. AB 2098, by Assemblyman Paul Krekorian (D-Burbank), was written in response to a recent scandal in which the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video showing workers at a plant in Chino using electric prods and forklifts to move sick cows who had fallen down before slaughter.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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