Why You Can't Leave Money to a Dog--And What Happens If You Try


A dog, for all its admirable and unique qualities, is not a human being and is not treated in the law as such.
Arrington v. Arrington, 613 S.W.2d 565 (Tex. Ct. Civ. App. 1981).

You cannot leave money or other kinds of property to your dog. And it's not just because he can't see over the bank counter to open an account. The law says animals are property, and one piece of property simply can't own another piece. In this, as in many areas, the law lags behind the people. A 2006 survey found that 69% of the people asked considered family pets family members, not property. (USA TODAY, March 31, 2006.)

Because a dog can't own property, it can't be a beneficiary (someone who receives property) in a will. If you do name your dog as a beneficiary, whatever property you tried to leave it will probably go instead to the alternate beneficiary or, if there's no alternate, to the person you named as your "residuary" beneficiary (who gets everything not specifically left to other beneficiaries named in the will). If there's no residuary beneficiary, the property will be distributed to your closest relatives under the "intestate succession" laws of your state, which control what happens to property if there is no will or trust to dispose of it. The point is that in all likelihood the dog will get nothing, and the result may be not at all what you intended. (It's possible, however, that a court would construe the will as creating a trust for the pet; see "Strategies for Taking Care of Pets.")

Take the case of Thelma Russell, who left "everything I own … to Chester H. Quinn and Roxy Russell." Chester was a close friend; Roxy was a dog. Russell's niece challenged the will. The California Supreme Court agreed that the gift to Roxy was void, which left the question of what to do with half of the property. Should it go to Chester, or to the niece, who was Russell's only heir under California law?

Despite a note that Russell had left, urging Chester not to let her nieces get their hands on her property no matter what it took to stop them, the court gave half the estate to the niece. (In re Estate of Russell,  69 Cal. 2d 200, 444 P.2d 353 (1968).)  There's no record of what happened to Roxy, but it would be nice to think that she settled down happily for the rest of a long life with Chester, blissfully unaware of all the human squabbling.

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