THE BLOG

Of Chimps, Charities and Chattels: The Tricky World of Pet Bequests

19/06/2013 11:23 BST | Updated 17/08/2013 10:12 BST

Many of us, as either adults or children, have had pets.

Whether cat or dog, reptile or rodent, some have come to be regarded as true members of the family, sharing our time, food and affections.

It's not surprising, therefore, that a large number of people take favoured animals' well-being into account when dividing up their assets too.

Far from being an uncommon occurrence, myself and the rest of the Wills, Trust and Probate department at Pannone LLP are frequently asked for advice by owners looking to provide for pets after their own death.

However, the business of bequeathing cash to a cat or funds for Fido is not straightforward as you might think. Individuals seem surprised when told that they can't simply include animals among the intended beneficiaries of their will in the same way that they might a close friend or relative.

There are legal delicacies to address as well as the potential for challenges from relatives, angry at seeing what they might consider their inheritance going to a pet or even an animal charity. That was something reported on earlier this year by Nicola Marchant, another of my Pannone colleagues.

The whole issue of pet bequests was brought to mind not by Nicola's comments but when I recently read the tale of Bubbles, the chimpanzee who became the constant companion of the so-called 'King of Pop', Michael Jackson.

At one stage, Bubbles was so much of a simian similar for the singer that he wore the same outfits and even appeared in the video for Jackson's 1987 hit 'Bad'.

Few might have imagined that things would turn truly bad for the chimp, though, to the extent that less than four years after Jackson's death, the trappings of celebrity have well and truly disappeared.

Bubbles now resides in a Florida animal sanctuary, neither visited by Michael Jackson's family nor supported by his estate.

His circumstances contrast with those of Trouble, a Maltese terrier owned by the American real estate billionairess Leona Helmsley. Prior to her death in 2007, Helmsley cut her grandchildren out of her will but left $12 million to her beloved dog.

Although incredibly generous, the Helmsley case highlights one of the complexities of making such provision. It isn't possible to establish a trust to benefit a pet directly.

Trusts are for individuals who can take issue with the trustees managing money intended to be used for their benefit and hold them to account, something which animals are not capable of doing.

After the death of their owners, animals are classed as chattels and, therefore, put in the same bracket as the TV set or crockery collection rather than as animate, sentient beings.

Lawyers like myself who are asked to assist owners with concerns of how best to manage their pets' welfare, advise the setting up of something called a discretionary trust. As in the case of Leona Helmsley's Trouble, these can provide a potential beneficiary - in her case, the manager of one of her hotels - with the cash to look after animals, with the terms under which they should do so outlined explicitly in something known as a Letter of Wishes.

However, there is no way to penalise such beneficiaries who do not use the money as they should because the trusts are discretionary and not legally-binding. The operation of these trusts is, ultimately, based on trust itself.

Even so, they offer arguably the best way of ensuring that man's or woman's best friend doesn't have as rough - or ruff - a time as Bubbles in their remaining days.