Animal Capital


Last week, pet inheritance made the news with the death of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and speculation in the media that his cat, Choupette, might be the biggest beneficiary of a sizable chunk of his $150 million-plus estate.

Whether this happens – media speculation about his will is exactly what it is, speculation – pet inheritance is big and growing, with amounts involved sometimes running into millions of dollars.

Pet trusts are big business, with lawyers saying more trusts are being set up for animals than ever before

Type in ‘pet inheritance’ into a search engine and a list of the top 10 biggest left to pets appears pretty much at the top of the listings. Famous among the top 10 pet inheritances include the amount left to Leona Helmsley’s dog, Trouble, with her death in 2007.

The New York City-based billionaire left a bequest of $12 million to her adored pet. But after a court case, the little white Maltese ended up getting $2 million, but not before a security detail was assigned to Trouble to ensure the dog wasn’t killed by a jealous member of Leona’s family.  

Other famous pet inheritances include Michael Jackson’s pet chimp Bubbles, who received $2 million after the singer’s death, and a chicken called Gigoo who allegedly inherited $10 million after the death of the British publishing heir Miles Blackwell.

Pet trusts are big business, with lawyers saying more trusts are being set up for animals than ever before. In most countries, bequests to pets have to be left indirectly through an individual(s) – a trustee(s) – who has the responsibility of administering the trust for the pet.

In the US, pet trusts are legally enforceable in 42 states and are particularly prevalent in California, says the Withers Bergman Los Angeles-based lawyer, Michael Brophy. “After all, we’re in the land of celebrity.”

These trusts, says Brophy’s colleague, Eva Wolf, are increasingly appointing protectors, who ensure the trusts are properly enforced. “This adds an additional safeguard for those drawing up pet trusts,” says Wolf.

Brophy says Withers advise those thinking of setting up pet trusts not to be overly generous like Helmsley was to Trouble. “If the pet is left a big sum in relation to the size of the estate, disputes are more likely to arise.”

The rights of pets in relation to issues of inheritance and divorce are likely to become greater in the years ahead. Currently, with cases of divorce in the US, pets are considered to be personal property, capable of human ownership and control. So, custody over pets in divorce cases is treated the same way as the division of property.

But a recent law in California means pets there effectively have a higher status than property. In fact, the new law recognises pets having a “unique nature”, which allows judges to apply special assessments that can be used in custody battles.

This effectively gives pets a status between that of a human being and property. Other US states are looking at the law with interest and some are expected to move in the same direction.

Some animal rights proponents now say pets should be treated the same as humans in custody battles. Given animal rights are becoming more important in places like the US and the UK it might only be a matter of time before pets there are given the same rights as humans in cases of divorce.

With more laws protecting the rights of pets in relation to inheritance and divorce, animal capital is something that is bound to grow in the future as the wealthy leave big amounts to their beloved pets.

And, no doubt, wealth managers will see an opportunity around animal capital in the future.

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