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Increasingly, pets pop up in obituaries, wills

Leona Helmsley left Trouble, her beloved white Maltese, a $12-million trust fund, which a court later reduced to $2-million. Helmsley died in August 2007.

Associated Press (2003)

Leona Helmsley left Trouble, her beloved white Maltese, a $12-million trust fund, which a court later reduced to $2-million. Helmsley died in August 2007.

When Anna Ruth Jones died in Durham, N.C., this month, her obituary listed a handful of cousins and special friends. But the most prominent survivor, the only one described as "cherished," was Sir Rufus of Iredell, her black and white cat.

The feline's elevation to grieving relative represents a new step for household pets across the country — special mentions in notice of their owners' passing.

The Times ran at least three obituaries that mentioned surviving pets: a dog named Truman, another dog named Boomer, and some cats.

Regard for pets has steadily grown to the point where some enjoy health insurance benefits. Lawyers now build careers around defending furry clients. And books can be bought explaining how to name a pet executor, along with instructions for obtaining a pet's living will.

New York hotel maven Leona Helmsley famously left $12-million to her Maltese, Trouble. Trouble now lives in Sarasota with its caretaker, Carl Lekic, general manager of the Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel. In June, a court reduced the inheritance amount to $2-million.

In North Carolina, High Point publisher Randall B. Terry bequeathed an estimated $1-million to the care of his six golden retrievers.

In Maryland, a beagle and two Labrador mixes named Buckshot, Katie and Obu-Jet inherited an estate valued at $800,000 when their owner, Ken Kemper, died.

According to Woman's Day, Oprah is planning to leave her pets $30-million if they outlive her.

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For Deborah Bowen, a social work professor at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, mention in obits is a natural shift. As society has become isolated by computers, cable television, job transfers and 50-hour workweeks, pets fill a void too wide for busy humans, said Bowen, author of A Good Friend for Bad Times: Helping Others Through Grief.

Look at the way medicine for animals has changed, she said. Families routinely pay vet bills that top $1,000, getting treatment once reserved for humans. It's natural, she said, that the same regard would extend to death — regardless of who's in the casket.

"If the pet survives you, you put the pet in the obit," Bowen said. "There is that sense of loss for animals, and there is an adjustment. Dogs will grieve the loss of another dog in the house so much that they won't eat."

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Jones, a Durham, N.C., nurse who died Jan. 6, had little family other than Sir Rufus. Finding a new home for him has been tough, her neighbor said, because the animal won't tolerate a household where he isn't top cat and can monopolize attention.

Sometimes, an animal wins top billing.

In New Hampshire, the former copy desk chief of the Portsmouth Herald sometimes saw cats and dogs listed by elderly women. But once, a few years back, he ran across a cancer victim who listed — in an obituary he penned himself — a pig as his first survivor.

"It threw us for a loop," wrote Mike Sullivan, who has moved on to public relations and cannot recall the pig's name. "It went down as one of the most bizarre obits I'd ever edited and published."

Increasingly, pets pop up in obituaries, wills 01/19/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 19, 2009 4:28pm]
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