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One in a Million Part 1: Does Art Imitate Life?

February 16, 2023

Don Walsh

Marie Ignozzi

Like many people, after the end of Tiger King, we thirsted for a new docuseries which would meet the thrill of wild characters and twisted story lines.  We found it in Gunther’s Millions on Netflix.  Gunther’s Millions tells the story of a dog which is the primary beneficiary of an Italian trust funded by millions of dollars made from a pharmaceutical company.  The trust contains some “unique” provisions and has employed an interesting cast of characters to serve the dog and the trust in some capacity including trust’s lawyer.

After watching the show, we were inundated with questions about the viability of its underlying premise and all of the legal issues the show presented.  We saw issues ranging from trusts to employment to deceptive advertising.  After consorting over tequila, Marie and I are going to embark on a series of articles breaking down some of what we saw and putting it under a more focused legal lens.

First, pet trusts are real and Maryland allows them although not to the same extent that Gunther and his heirs enjoyed.  For example, in Maryland, the animal must be alive during the settlor’s lifetime and the trust ends at the death of the last animal covered by the trust.  In such a trust, pet owners get to identify a caretaker and the trust assets are not subject to the caregiver’s creditors, marital disputes, or bankruptcy.

Unlike the Burgundians, a proper Maryland Pet Trust requires that the trust property may be used only for the pet’s benefit unless the court finds that the value of the trust property is excessive.  What is considered excessive is very fact specific.  The most famous instance of an excessive finding was when Leona Hemsley famously left her Maltese dog, Trouble, $12 million after she passed. The court decided $12 million was too much money and reduced the amount to $2 million and ordered the other funds to be given to the forgotten grandkids.

Second, there is no doubt that Gunther’s handlers, his bevy of caretakers, and spokespersons and those Burgundians who were there to frolic and “be happy” were undeniably employees of the Trust.  As such, the Trust would be responsible for paying legal wages and including lodging and meals as part of the taxable compensation(or coming up with a convincing exemption). It would also be responsible to provide worker’s compensation for pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases as a result of the employee’s required and encouraged activities and, of course, the Trust would need to address any sexual harassment claims arising from living under such circumstances.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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