Christian Chenu 

Film: The Aristocats and how pets become millionaires

Meet Gunther VI. He’s wealthier than 99.9% of Americans

We wouldn’t normally start an article by introducing you to a dog, but this one has been in the news lately.

Gunther VI is just your average German Shepherd. He likes chasing tennis balls. He eats caviar for dinner. He owns a football team. He is the beneficiary of a trust whose property portfolio is currently worth $690,000,000 AUD. And he’s willing to sell his home to you for $43,000,000.

Gunther is the descendant of Gunther III, who inherited a $110,000,000 fortune when his owner, German countess Karlotta Liebenstein, passed away in 1992 without human heirs. Presumably the Countess was unable to find a worthy charity in need of help.

This type of thing is not as uncommon as you might think. The designer Karl Lagerfeld named his cat as a beneficiary of his estate. Oprah Winfrey is rumoured to have done the same.

And this scenario provides the setting for Disney’s The Aristocats, a lesser-known member of the estate-planning movie genre.

The Butler did it

The Aristocats concerns a family of cats owned by Madame Adelaide Bonfamille. They live in her palatial residence in Belle Époque Paris. One day, the elderly Madame Adelaide calls her lawyer and instructs him to prepare a will leaving her vast estate first to her cats, and then to her butler. The butler calculates that he has little hope of outliving the cats (what, with their nine lives and all). He promptly decides that they need to go. Mayhem ensues for the next sixty minutes.

The faithful butler concerned only for his employer’s wellbeing

The Aristocats is not one of Disney’s better films. It has a few excellent musical set pieces, but some parts of it have aged poorly.

Curiously enough, however, it does a good job of the estate planning legalities. Having seen that naming cats as beneficiaries of her estate simply doesn’t work, at the film’s conclusion Madame Adelaide opts instead to establish a foundation in their honour. Amazingly, this is actually a viable strategy!

Pets are property, but we love them all the same

You cannot provide for your pets in your will as you can for your children.

Pets are not people; they are property. In the eyes of the law, leaving your estate to your pet makes no more sense than leaving it to your car.

Instead, the easiest way to secure a pet’s future is to gift them (as property) to a family member who can be trusted to look after them. You may make an allowance or payment to this person to cover the costs associated with that pet, with that payment conditional on the beneficiary maintaining that pet.

What to do when there’s no one left to help

Unfortunately, the above approach is not always possible. Firstly, there may not be an obvious candidate to care for the animal. Secondly, if there are candidates available, the pet may still realistically outlive all of them (some parrots effectively live forever).

In these cases, a trust for the benefit of the animal is technically possible (as the illustrious Gunther VI demonstrates). However, there are several drawbacks. The trusts are administratively expensive, meaning they are difficult to justify unless there is a large estate. Also, the trust may be defeated by a family provision claim. Wills that establish trusts for the benefit of pets (or any other charitable cause) are historically vulnerable to challenges from family members who have not been adequately provided for.

As a simple alternative, the pet may be placed in the care of an organisation such as the RSPCA, with a bequest made to that body to cover the pet’s costs. That organisation may or may not rehome the pet.

In all cases, it is a good idea to leave a written document providing directions as to the care of the animal, including vet contact details and relevant medical history. It is particularly important that there is someone who can step in straight away if a pet owner unexpectedly passes. Unlike other parts of an estate, a pet is one piece of property that cannot wait for probate to be granted.

Loch Legal will be happy to consider all of your estate planning requirements. Please contact Sophie Cohen (sophie@lochlegal.com.au) on 0411 866 505 or Christian Chenu (christian@lochlegal.com.au) on 0417 015 997 to discuss how we can help.

The Aristocats is now streaming on Disney+