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Image: Happy the dog
Pat Sullivan  /  AP
A dog named Happy relaxes at the Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center in College Station, Texas. The center, which offers lifetime care for animals whose owners have died, is home to about 20 cats, 15 dogs and a llama.
updated 6/22/2011 8:55:56 PM ET 2011-06-23T00:55:56

You don't have to be Leona Helmsley to want the best for your pet after you die. She'd left her dog Trouble $12 million when she passed away in 2007. A judge cut the award to $2 million and awarded some of the money to her grandchildren, but the Maltese still lived a life of luxury until his death in December. The dog's passing was just announced this month by the Helmsley trust.

Pet estate planning has grown since Helmsley's will made headlines. Today there are retirement homes for pets all across the country, and at least 45 states allow for pet trusts. A pet trust is an agreement that specifies how an owner wants a pet to be cared for, including details on who will be responsible for the animal and how the care will be paid for.

There are also attorneys who specialize in pet trusts, along with how-to books like "Who Will Care When You're Not There?" by tax attorneys Robert E. Kass and Elizabeth A. Carrie, "Fat Cats and Lucky Dogs" by law professor Gerry W. Beyer and estate planner Barry Seltzer, and "Petriarch: The Complete Guide to Financial and Legal Planning for a Pet's Continued Care" by animal attorney Rachel Hirschfeld.

Hirschfeld wrote a pet protection agreement that is legally binding and can be found online for as little as $39. Companies like Trusted Pet Partners, founded by attorney Chris Jones of Santa Barbara, offer a simple online pet trust for $289. Other online resources include a free planning guide from the Humane Society of the United States called "Providing for Your Pet's Future Without You" at http://www.humanesociety.org/petsinwills.

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Exactly how many pets are abandoned after their owners die is unknown, says Richard Avanzino, former president of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but his best guess is 2 percent of surrendered animals, or 150,000 dogs and cats a year. A study from the late 1990s published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science found 1 percent of dogs and 1.5 percent of cats coming into 12 animal shelters had been surrendered because of owner death.

In 1979, Avanzino went to court to prevent the euthanization of a dog whose owner, Mary Murphy, had committed suicide. Murphy left a will instructing that her 11-year-old dog Sido be euthanized.

"She didn't think anybody else could take care of her in the same pampered, loving way," said Avanzino.

Pet saviors: 11 animals who saved human lives

A judge ruled disposal of personal property does not extend to killing a living creature.

"People from the grave cannot dictate the demise of their beloved pets just because they are not around to take care of them," Avanzino said.

Murphy's case prompted the San Francisco SPCA to set up one of the nation's first sanctuaries for pets who outlive their owners.

Image: Chance the cat and Chester the dog
Pat Sullivan  /  AP
Chance the cat and Chester the dog share a bed at the Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center in College Station, Texas.

A few veterinary schools offer estate planning options like lifetime care for pets and placement in a home. The Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center, established by the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine, offers a place for pets to live in addition to veterinary care. The Stevenson Center in College Station, Texas, currently houses 20 cats, 15 dogs and a llama, said Ellie Greenbaum, assistant to the director. They also have 377 animals from 20 states registered as potential residents. The fee for lifetime care is between $50,000 and $100,000 per pet, with any leftover funds donated to the center or the college.

But lifetime pet care arrangements don't always cost that much. Blue Bell Foundation For Cats in Laguna Beach, Calif., charges $6,500 for lifetime care for cats. The organization was founded by Bertha Gray Yergat, who wanted to ensure care after her death for the 200 cats she'd rescued. Yergat left about $1 million in assets, said Susan Hamil, chairwoman (and original member) of the foundation's board of directors. The organization now houses 50 cats.

The cat came back: 13 true ‘tails’ of survival

One big problem is making sure trusts are written so that the pets and funds can be turned over quickly to the designated caregiver or facility. "The need when you pass away is immediate," Hamil said.

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Most people will choose a friend or relative to take their pets.

"Much like an adoption, the goal is to make sure it will be a good match," said Kim Saunders, vice president of shelter outreach for Petfinder.com, an online pet adoption database. "You may love your best friend or family member, but they may not be a dog person." So some people designate an agency to find a new home for the pet.

Some owners leave money to whomever they're entrusting their pet to as a way of making sure the animal does not become a financial burden. Unfortunately, sometimes when large sums are involved, Avanzino said, "greed gets in the way."

In one case, Avanzino said, a cat was to be cared for by a maid and butler who were to get free room and board as long as the cat was alive. "The first time we saw the cat, we estimated it was 8 years old. Four years later, the cat was about 4 and the next time, the cat they brought in and said was the same cat, was estimated to be about 1 year old," he said.

In another case, the owner of a German shepherd left relatives the use of an entire estate as long as the dog lived. "They kept it alive almost two years on life support. The dog was totally incapable of moving," Avanzino said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: 11 animals who saved humans

  • Image: Lady
    For many of us, the animals in our lives are faithful pals who make us laugh, keep us company and love us no matter what. But in times of danger and tragedy, can we also count on them to save our very lives?

    If dozens of incidents are any indication, the answer to that question is, pretty reliably, yes. Click "Next" for 11 outstanding examples of animals who saved the lives of humans.

  • Dog saves 11-year-old boy from cougar attack

    Image: Angel
    When a hungry cougar came calling, an 11-year-old boy named Austin Forman had Angel on his side.

    It happened on a dark Sunday evening in British Columbia, Canada, when Austin went outside to collect wood for his family's wood-burning furnace. He noticed that Angel, his happy-go-lucky golden retriever, was acting much more cautious and guarded than usual. Within moments, a cougar tried to pounce on Austin from less than 10 feet away. Angel jumped directly into the big cat's path and bore the brunt of the attack instead.

    "She was my best friend, but now she's even greater to me. She's more than a best friend now," Austin said after the attack, which almost certainly would have killed Angel if a local police constable hadn't managed to shoot the cougar.

    The 18-month-old dog had surgery to repair extensive injuries to her head. "I was just lucky my dog was there, because it happened so fast I wouldn't have known what hit me," Austin said. "I bought her a big, nice juicy steak."

    Read the related story

  • Cat protects couple from deadly gas leak

    Image: Greg Guy and his cat, Schnautzie
    Ryan Hall  /  Great Falls Tribune
    Schnautzie was still just a kitten when she did something big — really big — for her owners. At about 2 a.m. on a cold night in October 2007, Schnautzie ambled up onto the chest of sleeping Trudy Guy and began tapping Guy's nose with her paw. The first time it happened, Guy ignored the adorable annoyance and went back to sleep. But Schnautzie was persistent: Tap. Tap. Tap.

    This time around, the pats on the nose woke Guy up, and she noticed the way Schnautzie was sniffing the air. She awakened her husband, Greg Guy, and they both heard an ominous hissing noise. A gas pipe leading into their Montana home had broken and was filling their basement with fumes.

    The Guys and their trusty feline fled the house. Firefighters later told the couple that if the furnace had kicked on — highly probable on such a cold night — the whole house could have exploded in flames. Schnautzie's efforts earned her a Purple Paw award from the Great Falls (Mont.) Animal Foundation.

    Read the related story

  • Dog leads owner to elderly man freezing in snow

    Image: Effie
    Brett Grinde
    This is a photo of a dog named Effie who found a 94-year-old man frozen to a sidewalk in Minnesota in January 2010.
    On a frigid afternoon during a cold Minnesota winter, Brett Grinde took his 15-year-old German Shorthaired dog Effie for a walk. Just a regular walk along their regular route -- until Effie began behaving strangely.

    "At the 'T' we always go left," Grinde told the Pine City Pioneer newspaper. "She started pulling to the right. Effie has never, ever done that, and hasn't pulled in a long time."

    Effie was so beside herself that Grinde, an investigator with the Pine County Sheriff's Office, decided to let go of her leash and let her run. She sprinted straight to a driveway about 40 yards away, where a 94-year-old man was frozen to the ground. "He had serious exposure and blood underneath him," Grinde said. "I have seen plenty of deceased people and thought he was dead."

    He wasn't dead, though, and because of Effie's intervention he was able to get emergency medical care. The man did die a few days later, but Grinde remains grateful that Effie ended his misery in the cold. "I think the one above heard the man suffering and pointed Effie in the right direction," he said. "It's all in God's hands one way or another."

    Read the related story

  • Dog brings help to burning home

    Image: Buddy
    Remember how, in all those old TV shows and movies, Lassie the collie could always be counted on to run and get help? Well, Lassie has a new understudy: Buddy the German shepherd.

    On a cold, night in Alaska, a fire erupted at the home of Buddy's owners. One of them, 23-year-old Ben Heinrichs, got Buddy safely outside and told him, "We need to get help."

    That's just what Buddy did. He dashed off and eventually encountered the vehicle of a state trooper who had gotten lost on rural roads while trying to respond to the blaze. Buddy got his attention and began running at top speed down snowy streets, directing the trooper right to the fire. During the rush to the inferno, the dog kept looking back over his shoulder to make sure the trooper was keeping up.

    Buddy's entire rescue effort was captured by a video camera on the trooper's dashboard.

    Read the related story

    Video: Alaska state trooper speaks out on TODAY
  • Dog saves blind owner from blood-sugar crash

    Image: Joe Mauk and his dog, Roxanne
    Roxanne was carefully trained as a guide dog for the blind — but she received no training at all to sense an impending medical crisis. The faithful Labrador retriever figured that part out all on her own.

    Her handler, Joe Mauk of Brookville, Pa., had lost his vision after enduring Type I diabetes for years. In early 2010, he got all set to take Roxanne out for her evening walk, but she resisted. "She wouldn't get in her harness and kept laying down and putting her head on her legs," Mauk told PeoplePets.com.

    Mauk finally managed to coax her outside — and during the walk, he collapsed. "My blood sugar crashed," he said. "It was pretty much a crawl back to my house — I was fighting for consciousness." Roxanne madly licked his hands and dragged him back home by her leash. "I remember getting my front door open, but from there it went blank. When I came to, a syringe of glucagon still in my leg, I was saturated from sweat — and from Roxanne licking my face and arms. I'd never felt her react to anything that way before."

    Since the incident, Roxanne has been exceptionally protective and attentive with Mauk. "I've never felt safer in my life," he said. "She has one eye open all the time."

    Read the full story from PeoplePets.com

  • Cat saves couple pregnant with twins

    Image: Baby the cat
    Some cats, like Baby the 13-year-old tabby, tend to be timid all their lives. But on a night in January when multiple lives were at stake, Baby's personality changed.

    Josh Ornberg and Letitia Kovalovsky — who was seven months pregnant with twins — had fallen asleep on the couch in their suburban Chicago home. The couple's house was stocked with baby gear and recently assembled cribs.

    A fire began in a back bedroom, and the house began filling with smoke. Baby jumped on Ornberg and woke him up. "It's kind of embarrassing that I needed my cat to wake me up, but she was my fire detector," Ornberg told PeoplePets.com. "She's usually not a very social cat, but she jumped on my lap and was jumping around."

    The fire destroyed nearly all of the couple's possessions and made the home uninhabitable for a time — but everyone survived. Wonder Lake Fire Protection Assistant Chief Mike Weber called Baby a hero. "We don't know what the outcome would have been if not for the cat," Weber said.

    Read the full story from PeoplePets.com

  • Chihuahua saves elderly women from drowning

    Image: Chi Chi
    Chihuahuas are known for being tiny, adorable and, in some cases, a little yappy. In October 2008, one 13-pound Chihuahua named Chi Chi yipped and yapped so hysterically that he couldn't be ignored.

    His owners, Rick and Mary Lane, had taken Chi Chi with them to the beach on North Carolina's Outer Banks. The diminutive doggie was resting in his own beach chair (and restrained with a leash) when he suddenly went berserk. "He leapt out of his beach chair, still attached, dragging the beach chair, and he started sending out an alarm," Mary Lane said. "He was making a sound we never heard before. Rick said, 'Hey, what's the matter with the dog?'"

    Chi Chi had spotted something horrible happening about 100 yards down the beach. "There was a storm surge, and there were two elderly ladies — one had fallen on her back headfirst into the surf," Mary Lane said. "The other lady ... was trying to hold her head up, and she was in danger of being washed out."

    Thanks to Chi Chi's warning, the Lanes rescued the women from the riptide.

    See the related story

    Video: Owners chat with TODAY hosts
  • Dog helps paralyzed owner escape fire

    Image: Jake Vernon and his dog, Gracie Bean
    Jake Vernon was groggy and in pain. The 32-year-old had been paralyzed in a car accident 10 years earlier, and he had recently broken his right leg. On the morning of St. Patrick's Day, he took some medication he had been prescribed and tried drifting off to sleep.

    But his dog Gracie Bean really wanted him to wake up. She yipped and yowled and ran around and around. Vernon told her to knock it off. "I even swatted her a few times and told her to lay down and be good," he told PeoplePets.com.

    Finally, though, Gracie prompted him to wake up enough to see that his bed's headboard was on fire. The flames were spreading to his pillows and blankets, and they would soon engulf his entire Spokane, Wash., home. Vernon had to struggle to get out of bed, into his wheelchair, out his back door and down his home's only wheelchair ramp. Gracie, an American pit bull terrier, stayed completely calm and remained by Vernon's side throughout the ordeal. Vernon survived with some minor burns and wounds on his legs. "What was so crazy was my dog was not afraid of the fire," he said. "My dog walked right between me and the fire and stayed right there."

    Read the full story from PeoplePets.com

  • Dolphins rescue surfer from shark attack

    Image: A dolphin
    The shark attack was horrific. A great white had mauled surfer Todd Endris' right leg and removed the skin off his back like a banana peel.

    Just then, a pod of bottlenose dolphins came to Endris' aid. They circled the surfer and blocked the shark's access to him, making it possible for Endris to catch a wave back to shore on his board and get medical help.

    The attack happened in August 2007 at Marina State Park off Monterey, Calif. The dolphins had been playing and frolicking in the area that morning while Endris and his friends surfed. Endris has no doubt that their intervention at just the right moment saved his life. "Truly a miracle," he said.

    Read the related story

    Video: Todd Endris speaks out on TODAY
  • Family dog kept missing 3-year-old girl safe

    Image: Victoria Bensch
    Yavapai County Sheriff's Office
    Arizona is known for its warm temperatures, but in the month of February, it can get downright cold after dark. It was on just such a night that a 3-year-old little girl named Victoria Bensch vanished while playing in her yard. She wound up spending the whole night outside in 30-degree temperatures wearing little more than a T-shirt -- but fortunately, she had a friend with her to keep her warm.

    One of the Bensch family's dogs, a Queensland heeler named Blue, stayed by the girl's side as she wandered off at about 5 p.m. Victoria walked and walked with her lifelong pal and apparently got lost. Her disappearance triggered a massive search that continued throughout the night.

    A rescue helicopter crew finally spotted Blue, then Victoria, just before 9 o'clock the following morning. She was rushed to a hospital and treated for frostbite. "We have to give a lot of credit to Blue," said Kim Rayfield, Victoria's aunt. "He pretty much stayed with her all night."

    Read the related story

  • Dog stayed by deceased owner's side for 7 days

    Image: Lady and 81-year-old Parley Nichols
    The animal chosen for the concluding story in this feature wasn't able to save the life of her owner. But she absolutely tried.

    Lady, a 6-year-old golden retriever, was a loyal companion to 81-year-old Parley Nichols of Hartville, Ohio. The two were always together, and Nichols never left his home without his dog. So when Nichols, who had dementia, wandered off and went missing, Lady stayed right by his side.

    "Dad had been wandering around, and we kept looking for him for a solid week, sending out flyers, doing whatever we could," Terry Nichols, one of Parley's two sons, told PeoplePets.com. A neighbor alerted Nichols to a dog barking and apparently trying to get attention near a creek outside of town, so he and his family investigated. "We found Lady and my dad, who was already dead," Nichols said. "Lady was standing by his side protecting him. We are sure that she never left my dad for seven days, staying alive by drinking water from the creek. ...

    "I don't know how dogs perceive things but she knew she had to stay with dad no matter what. And she did."

    Read the full story from PeoplePets.com


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