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A fortune for a feline: is it even legal?

Last month it was reported that fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld had passed away. The famed creative director of leading fashion house, Chanel, lost his battle with pancreatic cancer aged 85 after having amassed a considerable fortune (as much as £150 million according to media reports). The loss of the designer to the fashion industry has been widely reported, along with the suggestion that his pet cat, Choupette, could inherit a considerable portion of the late Mr Lagerfeld’s estate.

Choupette had a significant following prior to the announcement of her possible ‘inheritance’: she has been pictured aboard private jets; has her own Instagram page; and is reported to eat off of nothing less than fine china. While the suggestion that a pet could inherit a significant sum has been met with mixed reactions on social media, Choupette’s future without her owner seems to be assured – steps are apparently being taken to make sure that the feline is kept in the high standard of living which she is accustomed to. It is not uncommon for owners to worry over who will take their place to look after their pet when they pass away and Choupette’s story poses a very important question: can you, legally, make provision for your pet when you pass away?

A serious consideration

In Scotland, 22% of the population own a dog, 17% of the population own a cat (The Scottish Government (2015), Scotland’s People Annual Report: Results from the 2014 Scottish Household Survey) and the number of pets owned across the whole of the UK is estimated to be around 58 million. Arrangements for the care of these pets will need to be considered in the event of death of their owner. Pets can be part of the family, in some cases being the only companion some people may have, so it may be upsetting for people to think there is no one to look after their pet after they are gone. Similarly for a pet, if their owner was suddenly not there, who will provide them with food, shelter and medical care? Around 60% of the population of the UK do not have a will, so this leaves a lot of pets without specific plans for their care.

The legalities

Making provision for pets needs to be approached with care: they are not, in law, capable of owning property and so the idea of leaving a sum of money / assets to an animal won’t work. So what can be done?

Could a will identify someone to look after the pet?

The obvious course for many would be for their pet to be the subject of a bequest to a human beneficiary under a will but this can be problematic:

  • The drafting of wills often means that clauses regarding caring for an animal would be conditional and depend upon the legatee accepting responsibility of care for the pet, which cannot be guaranteed. Even if the legacy is accepted there is no way to check that the animal is being looked after in the way that was intended; and
  • If the legacy is payable on the death of the animal there is very real risk that the new owner quickens this process to get this money faster! Alternatively, the legacy may only be payable while the animal lives, so the legatee may prolong the life of the animal regardless of whether it is in its best interests. Such legacies are therefore not always appropriate or effective and may not give full peace of mind that the level of care and good treatment expected by the testator will be carried out.

It means with an outright bequest designed to care for an animal choosing a human being that you trust is critical. Talking of trust…

Could a trust be set up to care for the pet?

Trusts are often used as part of estate planning and they can play a role in providing for pets when their owner passes away. Specifically, a trust coupled with specific wishes on caring for the animal can help to address some of the issues mentioned earlier. It is also important to select the right trustee(s) to implement your wishes. The trust should be accompanied by a letter of wishes setting out more detailed provisions for the animal which will make transitioning its care easier. A letter of wishes could include vet details, insurance details, dietary requirements, immunisation records, and their daily routine and habits. It could also include details on how they would like the animal to be cared for. It does rely on the trustees ensuring that these wishes are implemented. Generally, a letter of wishes will aid the trustees’ decision making duties and will not be overly burdensome.

A trust can also protect the funds to ensure they are only used for the care of the animal. It will prevent the new owner from spending money on other things to the detriment of the animal as they will only receive the funds if the animal is being properly cared for. The key to using a trust to provide for an animal is choosing trustees who will make sure your wishes for the animal are indeed carried out. Having said that, the same cardinal principle holds true for your wishes for human beneficiaries.

Practical planning ahead

If the law does not offer fool-proof complete solutions, the estate planning adage of planning ahead does. The means in which an animal is cared for does not have to be for one individual to have responsibility for the animal. Rather, the practical strategy could involve an arrangement with a charity, such as the Scottish SPCA, who provide a Forever Care service to care for animals following death. It will also be valuable if the owner has themselves or, perhaps, via an attorney made contact with the service to put in place clear plans. This will make dealing with the care of an animal much easier for the executors and family helping to avoid relying solely on more complicated legal solutions. It will also protect a healthy pet from notions (or even apparent instructions from the deceased) that they should be put down following their owner’s death.

Food for thought

The care of pets when their owner passes away is not often something that makes the headlines. However it is an important consideration for pet owners in estate planning. Choupette should – if reports be true – be kept in good care thanks to the plans of her late owner, and it is likely that other pet owners would like to take a similar approach with their fur or feathered friend as part of their wider estate planning (but perhaps without as much media attention). The law can help and setting out your instructions or at least wishes is important with one of doing that being through a service such as Scottish SPCA’s Forever Care.

Article written & sourced from Brodies LLP – Kevin Winters

Copyright © 2017 | Curtis Whiteford Crocker