As a frequent media contributor in the U.S. and France, I am often asked to comment on celebrities who are not my clients. This was the case most recently when Karl Lagerfeld the fashion icon, who split his time between Los Angeles and Paris, died in February. The Kaiser, as Lagerfeld was known, had no children but provided generously for “Choupette” his beloved Birman cat. In France, you cannot name a pet as a beneficiary. In order for a beneficiary to receive an inheritance, it has to be a physical person or a foundation. He could have created a foundation, whose sole mission was to take care of the cat, and named a director who could receive funds under the condition that the money was for the animal’s care. He could also have donated the money to an existing nonprofit and stipulated that the funds be used to take care of Choupette. Alternatively, he could have left Choupette to a trusted individual along with a gift of cash, earmarked for her care. Though Lagerfeld is German, the pair resided in France, where the law prohibits pets from inheriting their owners’ wealth. German law, however, allows one’s wealth to be transferred to an animal.
Pets in the U.S. are considered property and cannot inherit. I recommend creating a pet trust. Pet trusts allow you to set up both a “trustee” – the person who controls the money – and a “caregiver” – the person actually taking care of your animal. This creates a sort of check and balance system. If your caregiver isn’t taking care of your animal in the way you specified, your trustee can withhold the money. State statutes require the principal of the trust to be a reasonable amount. Philanthropist and hotel heiress Leona Helmsley put $12 million in a pet trust for her Maltese puppy “Trouble”. After a lengthy court battle, the trust was decreased by the court to $2 million. Anyone who owns a pet knows the love that can be shared between a human and an animal. Not surprisingly, many people want to make sure their pet is properly cared for in the event of their death in the same way they want to make sure family members are taken care of financially. As with all important decisions, in life and in death, seek qualified counsel.