Pets as Heirs
The 1970 Disney animated classic, the Aristocats, begins with the wealthy Madame Adelaide Bonfamille deciding to leave her substantial fortune to her pet cats. Her loyal butler, Edgar, is to inherit whatever is left after the four cats die. Edgar finds out about the terms of Madame Bonfamille’s Will and, after some poorly done mathematics, concludes the cats will outlive him and decides to remove the cats from the equation. In true Disney fashion, hijinks follow, but how realistic is this scenario that Disney’s created? Obviously cats cannot own property, so wouldn’t Madame Bonfamille be prohibited from leaving her money to her pets and Edgar could have avoided the whole issue as the cats would have just been skipped anyway?
While I cannot speak to whether cats could inherit a vast fortune in 1910 France, I do know that Madame Bonfamille could leave her fortune to her cats in modern day Washington. RCW 11.118 et seq was established by the Washington legislature in 2001 and provides the framework for trusts created for the benefit of animals. First off, it is important to note that the statute defines “animals” as “nonhuman animals with vertebrae” so if Madame Bonfamille wants to leave her estate to pet jellyfish or an ant farm, she would be out of luck. So now that we know what type of animals can be left money, the question of exactly how that is accomplished should be addressed.
As notes above, the funds cannot be left outright to the pet(s), any inheritance must be left in trust. This means that a Trustee would be appointed to manage the money set aside for the animals, and that Trustee would be responsible for ensuring that the money was used appropriately. In addition to the role of Trustee, a caretaker for the pet(s) is usually selected as well. The roles of Trustee and caretaker could be filled by the same person, but generally two separate people are named to help ensure that the animals are cared for and mitigate the risk of abuse.
For instance, in the example of the Aristocats, Madame Bonfamille would likely have named Edgar as the caretaker, since he cared for the cats everyday and was familiar with their needs, but if she had also named Edgar as the Trustee he could have simply refused to spend the money on the cats or spent it on himself. While his refusal to spend the money on the cats needs or the use of the money for himself would have been illegal, if no one else was involved in managing the funds it reduces the likelihood that Edgar’s abuse would be discovered. Now, consider if Madame Bonfamille had named Edgar as the caretaker but named a friend or family member as Trustee. The Trustee would presumably be checking in with Edgar about how the cats were doing, what they needed, and monitoring the trust funds to ensure they were not being spent inappropriately. It also means that Edgar, as caretaker, would be monitoring the Trustee to make sure the money was not being taken by the Trustee or otherwise mismanaged so that he wouldn’t have to pay for the cats care with his own funds. This arrangement obviously helps increase accountability and protect the animals, who cannot advocate for themselves.
So, if you have a vast fortune you would like to leave to your pets, keep in mind that a trust for their benefit is enforceable under Washington State law, and watch out for the butler.