In 2010, an economics professor named Patricia Bowers passed away. She had no children, so she left most of her modest estate to organizations she cared about. $100,000, however, was set aside to care for her dachshund “Winnie the Pooh” for the rest of the dog’s life.
Fast forward to today, and what should be a simple pet care trust is causing a lot of legal drama. The woman who cares for Winnie claims that the dog’s expenses are not being paid for by the trust, and is demanding an accounting from the attorney administering the estate.
The attorney, on the other hand, claims that Winnie’s caretaker refuses to cash the checks she is sent, so it would be easier just to give Winnie’s caretaker a lump sum payment of $30,000, and give the remaining money (somewhere around $60,000) to the animal shelter that is supposed to get whatever remains in the trust account after Winnie dies.
Winnie’s caretaker does not think this is a good idea because the dog might live another decade, and the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that it costs $6,000 per year to care for a typical dachshund. Plus, it is not what Bowers said she wanted.
This is all turning into a big mess that is going to end up costing Winnie’s trust thousands of dollars to resolve, and it is making headlines around the world, which is probably not something Bowers anticipated.
A lot of people have been rolling their eyes and laughing about this case, but what is happening is actually not at all unusual. A growing number of people are ensuring their furry family members will be taken care of after they are gone by creating pet trusts like the one Bowers created for Winnie, and there are often legal issues that arise with these trusts, just like there are with any other type of trust.
Without seeing the actual documents creating Winnie’s trust, it is hard to say exactly why legal issues are arising in this case, but there are several things that should be included in all pet trusts to cut down on disputes.
First, the trust should do more than say that the pet is to be taken care of. The process for making payments from the trust to the caretaker should be outlined. Are expenses to be paid out as they are incurred? Or should the caretaker get a set amount of money sent to them each month with the ability to get more if a medical emergency arises?
The trust should also provide guidance to the caretaker about what sort of care is expected. For example, if the pet develops cancer, should lots of money be spent on experimental treatments in an attempt to prolong its life? Or should the pet just be kept comfortable until it dies of the disease?
It is also odd that the estate administrator is proposing to cash out the trust now instead of doing as Bowers wished and closing it out when Winnie dies. Trusts should be flexible, but the creator’s wishes should always serve as the first source of guidance.
No matter what kind of pet you have, or how much money you spend on it, if you want to make sure it is well cared for after you are no longer able to do so, you should talk with an attorney about including your pet in your estate planning.