‘Gunther’s Millions’ Begs the Question: Are You Prepared to Leave a Fortune to Your Pet?

All dogs go to heaven (duh), but trust and estate lawyers told us what happens if you get there before them.

‘Gunther’s Millions’ Begs the Question: Are You Prepared to Leave a Fortune to Your Pet?
Photo:Gunther’s Millions, Netflix

The below article contains spoilers of the Netflix series “Gunther’s Millions,” which I honestly don’t really recommend you spend a weekend watching. I’d suggest reading this piece that gets into the nitty gritty of leaving money to your beloved pet instead.

Forget the hair of the dog, the real cure to any sort of blues is seemingly the heir of a dog. Woof. Sorry. Netflix’s latest true-crime docu-series, Gunther’s Millions, digs into the extravagant wealth surrounding the world’s richest dog, a German Shepherd named Gunther VI. Quickly, the story behind Gunther and his inheritance is that German countess Karlotta Leibenstein found herself without a successor in her later years, so she left her beloved dog her $400 million fortune. Leibenstein supposedly also granted the ever-eccentric entrepreneur Maurizio Mian the authority to oversee Gunther’s trust. After Leibenstein died in 1992, Mian decided the best way to diversify the pup’s portfolio was to invest in two yachts, Madonna’s former Miami residence, and a quasi sex-cult masked as a pop-music group. Also, Gunther has actually been six different dogs, all stemming from the original Gunther’s pedigree.

In a somewhat predictable twist toward the end of the series, Netflix reveals that Mian and others did not have the dogs’ best interests in mind and were mooching off the pooches’ estate. While the trust in Gunther’s name was real, it was set up by Mian himself—he’s an heir to an Italian pharmaceutical company—to help him dodge taxes and further his own public standing. However, the more purebred of heart should note that there are indeed ways to leave your dog your millions, should you be concerned who will spoil them once you’ve left this realm. I leashed in some experts to explain how one does that.

“All 50 states now have a law that permits you to create a trust for your pet,” Warren Whitaker, a partner at Day Pitney LLP, told Jezebel. Sarah Gelfand, another attorney at Day Pitney LLP, clarified that the firm is mostly seeing these sorts of trusts set up when it comes to animals like show dogs or horses, which require more intricate care. Whitaker chimed in, “It’s also people with a lot of money who are more able to do these things.” I’d figured, but I appreciated the confirmation.

Serendipitously, I had reached out to Whitaker and Gelfand, both trust and estate lawyers, earlier this month, before I’d even heard of Gunther or knew about his millions. I wish I could say I did it because I have a pesky $100 million lying around that I’m hoping to give to an unsuspecting Bichon Frise, but alas, not the case. I’d seen a report on the succinctly named Cats.com listing off the world’s richest pets and was struck by the perverse reality that a litter of cats, dogs, birds, and fish existed in tax bracket that people protest against.

Gunther topped the list, but I’d paid him nary a morsel of attention. Instead, my eye went first to Taylor Swift’s Scottish Fold Olivia Benson, who came in at number three with a net worth of $97 million that she earned (?) from appearing in music videos and launching (??) her own merchandise line. But what really struck me was the fact that Oprah’s dogs, all five of whom huddled in at number four on the list, are going to inherit $30 million when Oprah dies one day (???!!!!).

You don’t want to leave [the dog] to a friend and say, ‘When the dog dies my friend gets the rest of the money,’ because that dog might not have a very long lifespan.

Before 1999, New York State didn’t have a pet trust law and people would just leave money to someone in their will to look after their pet. Where that became a problem, Whitaker said, was that whoever you left your pet to could just “give that pet to an [adoption] agency the next day” and “there was no way to enforce” what they did with the money. Now, with the statute in place, there is less risk of nefarious actors. When I asked what might happen to any money left over from a $30 million inheritance, should a dog not be able to spend it all up, Whitaker explained that it usually goes to charity or sometimes back to the estate of the deceased. “You don’t want to leave [the dog] to a friend and say, ‘When the dog dies my friend gets the rest of the money,’ because that dog might not have a very long lifespan,” he said. A vile motive, but a paw-sible one, nonetheless.

Knowing the lengths people go to spoil their pets while they are earthside, it shouldn’t really surprise me that folks with means are setting up care for them from the afterlife. Businesswoman Leona Hemsley famously left her Maltese dog, Trouble, $12 million after she passed; she left nothing to two of her grandchildren. In that case, actually, the courts decided $12 million was entirely too much money for a Maltese and reduced the amount to a much more reasonable $2 million—ostensibly, enough to cover Trouble’s caretaker’s salary, rides in private jets, diamond dog collar, and private chef. They ordered the other $10 million be given to the forsaken grandkids.

In other cases, the courts have ruled in favor of the deceased’s intent. “It can go both ways,” Gelfand said. In 2014, a ruling in New Rochelle, New York, claimed that a deceased woman’s decision to leave her home and a million dollars to her cats was legitimate. “She created a very clear plan” that the courts decided they couldn’t digress from, Gelfand said.

In the Netflix series, we eventually learn that Mian concocted this elaborate publicity and tax-evasion stunt hoping it would further his peculiar scientific and sociological ambitions. Leibenstein was a fiction, and the dog in question was originally a girlfriend’s. Ultimately, Gunther’s Millions teeters on the promise of an addicting true-crime premise but doesn’t deliver. The real life characters aren’t as captivating as ones we’ve seen in other binge-worthy docs of the same genre (I’m looking at you, Joe Exotic). Whatever recipe the filmmakers were working off of did not set well in the oven. However, Gunther’s Millions did provide me the opportunity to reorganize my vision board and place in its center my future dog, rolling around on a pile of cash.

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