Recently, a German shepherd named Gunther VI made headlines worldwide by purportedly selling a $31.7 million dollar Miami mansion which used to belong to Madonna. As the story goes, Gunther VI’s great-grandfather, Gunther III, was gifted a multi-million-dollar trust from late owner German countess Karlotta Liebenstein when she passed in 1992. The fund was well managed, and led to acquisitions of mansions such as the one in Miami.
Weeks after the story broke in November, journalists uncovered that this story was a publicity stunt meant to advertise the Gunther Corporation, a business which invests in real properties around the world. There was never a Gunther VI. The dog in the photos did not own Madonna’s former mansion.
While this particular story was nothing but a “tall tail”, the idea of the wealthy leaving extravagant trusts to care for their pets is not a new one. Billionaire Leona Helmsley purportedly left $12 million to her dog, Trouble, through her last will. Similarly, Oprah Winfrey is purportedly leaving $30 million to her dogs.
This raises two questions: (1) can pets be the beneficiary of trusts? (2) what are some estate planning methods which may allow for the provision of testamentary assets to pets?
Can Pets be the Beneficiary of Trusts?
Under Canadian law, a testamentary gift can be made to persons, including a corporation, but cannot be made to an object or a purpose. The only exception lies in charity law, where such gifts can be made to one of four recognized charitable law classifications: the relief of poverty, the advancement of education, the advancement of religion, or any other purpose beneficial to the community which do not fall under the previous three headings.
In the eyes of the law, pets such as dogs and cats are the personal property of their owners. Because pets are objects, they cannot be the beneficiary to a trust any more than a chair can. Objects cannot legally own other objects, just as a chair cannot own a table.
Further, English common law (followed in Ontario) dictates that all non-charitable purpose trusts (i.e., trusts established towards a purpose rather than with a beneficiary) are invalid. Therefore, it is not possible to leave a valid trust for the purpose of providing for your pets, though it is theoretically possible to leave behind a charitable purpose trust to benefit animals or pets in general.
Estate Planning for Pets
Under Canadian law, the idea of pets inheriting fabulous wealth through trusts is a myth. However, there are some practical solutions to ensure that your pets are cared for, in the event that you predecease them.
One option is to gift your pet to a trusted family member or friend, alongside a cash legacy. It is important to choose a friend who will honour your wishes of caring for the pet with the money provided. There may be limited to no enforcement options available.
Another option is to use a pet foster program, such as the Ottawa Humane Society’s pet stewardship program. While living, the owner will sign an agreement with the program provider. On death, the animal is gifted to the program provider, alongside an estate transfer of funds. Using these funds, the animal is cared for by a foster family, and has access to requisite medical care for its lifetime.
For more, see my colleague, Gillian Fournie’s excellent blog on this subject.
To many, our pets are a prominent part of our lives. Therefore, it is only reasonable to want to provide for them in the same way we might want to provide for family members. Due to the legal nature of pets as personal property, and the rule against non-charitable purpose trusts, trusts are not recommended solutions.
However, with a little ingenuity, one can ensure their pets are cared for through options such as a pet foster program or as a gift to a trusted family member or friend who is willing to take on that role.
Thank you for reading.
Happy Collie-days from de VRIES LITIGATION LLP.
(Pictured above, the author’s pet cat, Tiger)