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Estate planning mistakes mean dying widow’s last wishes for her beloved cats go unfulfilled

by Vitruvix Media
June 30, 2023

Nancy Sauer, an affluent widow from Tampa, Florida, had experienced the heartbreaking loss of her husband and son, leaving her without any immediate surviving family members.

Fortunately, helping fill that void in her life were her seven Persian cats, who lived with her in her 4,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar home. However, Nancy realized that it was likely that her beloved cats, each about 5 years old, would outlive her due to their potential longevity of up to 20 years each.

That’s why Nancy, at age 84, had a plan to take care of her precious companions – Midnight, Snowball, Goldfinger, Leo, Cleopatra, Napoleon and Squeaky – if anything happened to her. After all, the unconditional love was mutual. Solitude is an unfortunate situation that millions of widowed Americans face, but the cats cured her loneliness and helped her stay active. They provided her with an ongoing sense of purpose. This was especially meaningful for an older person living alone without loved ones nearby.

Nancy’s plan was to make sure that upon her death, her furry brood would have their expenses covered. She vowed that her estate would pay for all their future veterinary care, food and grooming. In fact, Nancy put it in writing. In her last will and testament, Nancy explicitly outlined her intentions for the executor of her estate.

Nancy’s situation made headlines and raised eyebrows because she stipulated that the cats must remain in her home even after her passing, and the home itself could not be sold until the last of her seven cats had exhausted all of their nine lives. The cats, Nancy decided, would inherit much of her estate and continue to live in her stately home for years to come. Nancy, neighbors said, was worried about the stress her cats would endure if they were separated and placed with strangers and apart from each other.

Nancy died three days after her 84th birthday in November 2022. She passed away with the belief that her dying wish to keep her cats together happily ever after in her lavish home would be honored. For the next six months, Nancy’s executor followed the terms of the will. The executor hired caretakers to tend to the cats who continued to live in her home. It was a situation that surely would impress Choupette, the cat who was the primary beneficiary of renowned fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld’s estate and is now living in luxury in Paris.

Unfortunately for Nancy’s plan, a probate judge decided that seven cats sharing a lavish mansion was excessive and unreasonable. The judge ordered that new owners with their own human-occupied dwellings be found for the seven cats. However, the judge did allow Nancy’s estate to cover reasonable costs for vet care, food and grooming needs for as long as necessary.

In Nancy’s case, the Humane Society of Tampa Bay helped take care of the pets as they remained in her home during the probate process. Humane Society CEO Sherry Silk told the Tampa Bay Times that a volunteer would visit them few times daily, but the probate judge ruled that new homes should be found for the cats.

“Cats shouldn’t be left by themselves in a big house,” Silk said, but she vowed to try to keep as many of the cats together as she could. “I am going to personally make sure that we can keep as many together as we can and that they go to the perfect house.… The executor of her estate who is a personal friend called us to ask as experts what do we think of them because they were basically living in dog cages at the house.”

Estate planning for pets: lessons to learn

One lesson to learn is that Nancy made some common estate planning mistakes, leading to an outcome she never intended. First, Nancy mistakenly thought she could rely solely on her will to ensure the care of her beloved pets. She also didn’t understand that most states limit the amount of assets that can be used to fund the care of surviving pets. One key consideration is that in the eyes of estate planning law, cats are property and cannot actually inherit assets. Money can be used on their behalf, however, and that’s where a pet trust can be a better option to ensure your specific wishes are followed.

Nancy also failed to understand that when pet owners include provisions for their pets in a traditional will, the distribution of assets is subject to the discretion of the probate court. Even though Nancy’s wishes were clearly stated, a judge can ultimately decide differently.

Pet care in wills: A good idea?

One shortcoming of using is will is that an executor is not under a continuing obligation to oversee and pay for the pet’s care once the administration of the estate is completed. Unlike a trust, a will is not a binding contract, and your executor has the ability to follow – or not follow – your wishes years into the future. The trustee of your pet trust is committed to following the terms of the trust as long as they comply with state laws.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have pet trust laws on the books. Most states do, however, impose limits on the duration a pet trust can be used. In most states, a pet trust terminates upon the death of the last surviving animal named in the trust.

What is a pet trust?

group picture of birds, dogs, cats, fish, and rabbits

A pet trust is a specialized type of revocable living trust. It’s a legally recognized arrangement that allows pet owners to set aside funds and provide detailed instructions for the care of their pets after their death. By creating a pet trust, the owner can appoint a designated trustee who will be responsible for managing the allocated funds and ensuring they are used exclusively for the pet's well-being.

To ensure the pet's care aligns with the owner's wishes, specific instructions regarding the pet's routine, dietary needs, medical care and other important details can be outlined in the pet trust. By using a pet trust, humans who consider their pets part of the family can have peace of mind knowing that their pets will receive the necessary care and attention they deserve.

Another advantage of a pet trust is that it is effective during the owner’s lifetime. A will only takes effect after the death of the pet owner and cannot deal with life events such as the incapacity of the pet owner or if they no longer can physically care for them.

When creating a pet trust or any other estate planning document, it is important to consult with an experienced attorney who can provide guidance on the legal requirements, assist in drafting the trust document and help ensure its validity.

While it’s true that you could ask a trusted friend or surviving relative to care for your pet if you no longer can, without a formal legal arrangement, there’s a high risk your wishes won’t be followed in the years to come.

How does a pet trust work?

As a legal document that allows you to provide for the care of your pets after you die, a pet trust specifies who will be responsible for your pets' care, how they will be cared for and how much money will be used to care for them.

Some key advantages of a pet trust are that it ensures that your pets will be cared for after you die. It also gives you peace of mind knowing that your pets will be in good hands and can help avoid conflict among your loved ones about who will care for your pets.

In the trust, you can specify who you want to be the trustee (the person who will manage the trust) and who you want to be the beneficiaries (the people who will care for your cats). You can also specify how much money you want to be used to care for your cats and compensate caretakers.

Here are some additional tips for creating a pet trust:

  • Make sure that the trust is well-written and that it is properly funded.
  • Choose a trustee who you trust and who is willing to take on the responsibility of caring for your pets.
  • Specify in the trust how you want your pets to be cared for.
  • Update the trust as needed, especially if your circumstances change.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at legacyassuranceplan.com.

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Email - info@legacyassuranceplan.com
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