Leaving it all to the Dog!
Karl Lagerfeld, the renowned former Creative Director at Chanel, left behind a world-famous cat named Choupette upon his passing in 2019. While the exact amount is undisclosed, reports suggest that Lagerfeld left Choupette a substantial sum of $1.5 million in his will. Now, Lagerfeld’s former housekeeper, Françoise Caçote, is responsible for caring for Choupette. But how does the law handle leaving money to an animal, and how does it practically work?
Legally, pets are considered personal property, unless they serve as working animals, in which case they are treated as business assets. Choupette, being a social media “influencer” with over 250,000 Instagram followers and substantial earnings during Lagerfeld’s lifetime, blurs the lines of what constitutes a “working animal.” However, more traditional forms of animal work are likely what authorities had in mind.
Leaving money directly to an animal, as property, is not possible. So, what are the available options? One option is to establish a trust for the pet’s benefit. Typically, trusts require human beneficiaries, but in the case of trusts for the general welfare of animals, they are valid as charitable trusts. In a trust specifically for a testator’s pet, the funds are designated to a legatee who acts as the nominated trustee responsible for caring for the pet. If the trustee refuses the responsibility, the trust fails. However, if the trustee accepts, the court issues a Pettingall order, instructing the trustee to use the funds for the pet’s welfare. If the trustee fails to fulfill their duties, those entitled to the property can seek court intervention to enforce the trust or claim the property under a resulting trust.
Another option, more straightforward but still requiring careful drafting, is to leave the pet alongside a cash legacy to a designated person. The terms should ensure that the person receives the legacy only if they agree to care for the pet. Although there is no oversight of the person’s actions, choosing someone the testator trusts is crucial. This arrangement should minimize the need for further court involvement after the testator’s death.
It’s worth noting that bequests for the benefit of pets can sometimes lead to contentious estate disputes. In the United States, billionaire hotelier Leona Helmsley famously left a significant portion of her estate for the care of dogs, including a specific trust fund of $12 million for her Maltese dog, Trouble. In England, the recent case of Reginald and Maureen McLean involved a dispute over mutual/mirror wills, where the deceased’s son claimed his mother intended for him to inherit her property to care for her parrot and Jenday.
Ensuring the welfare of pets in wills involves navigating a legal landscape that blurs the distinction between property and companionship. It is essential to carefully consider and designate a guardian for your beloved furry friend, someone who will ensure their well-being and continue to celebrate your legacy even after you’re gone.