More Missouri pet owners include animals in their wills

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 | 5:50 p.m. CDT; updated 7:01 p.m. CST, Monday, November 14, 2011
Neal Cohen and his wife, Jackie, have established a trust to care for their more than 50 pets after they die. Cohen relaxes with one of these pets, Titus on Wednesday afternoon.

*A previous version of this story included incorrect information about the expected lifespan of some pet birds. Attorney David Rubin said some large birds can live as long as 50 years. In an email, he said parakeets can live 10 to 15 years if well cared for.

COLUMBIA—Sophie and Nessa get yearly professional photo shoots, own silk coats from Beijing and have their own flashy gold business cards.

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniels also have their own room where they may dine in private and two personal, enclosed patios. A separate room celebrates the Cavalier King Charles breed, its walls adorned with paintings of the dogs, a glass case containing figurines and a bookshelf with a well-organized collection of books about the breed.

Owner Barbara Levy of Columbia said she wants her dogs to live "the good life." She calls her house the Cavalier Cottage and considers herself head-keeper.

"I’d have a better retirement fund if I didn’t love my dogs so much," she said, shaking with laughter.

"Pets just have a way of grabbing your heart," she said.

And, it would seem, your checkbook.

Growing numbers of pet owners in Missouri are including their pets in their wills through trusts or other means, according to lawyers who create those provisions. In 2004, Missouri became one of 40 states to allow a pet to be the beneficiary of a trust. Previously, owners left money for their pets in animal honorary trusts and hoped it would be spent on the pet. But there was no formal contract.

David Rubin, a St. Louis lawyer who presents to lawyers on behalf of the Missouri Bar Association about pet estate planning, called the old system "reckless."

"When you’re gone, you can’t assume the nice lady down the street will take care of your dog," Rubin said. "There is now a way to enforce a contract."

Process of planning

A pet trust is a fund left for an animal’s care when its owner dies. A guardian of the owner’s choice can access the fund, Columbia attorney Greg Jones said. Pet owners can also assign trustees to hold the money and monitor the guardian’s spending. 

Rubin recommends leaving the guardian about $1,000 for veterinary bills and $1,000 for food per year, but it varies. The pet’s age and health should be taken into consideration, Rubin said. *For example, large birds can live as long as 50 years and require more planning.

"They’re also as smart as a 2- or 3-year-old," he said. "You can’t just put it in a basement or lock it in a closet. They’ll squawk."

A list of clear instructions for the pet should be enclosed with estate papers and given to the guardian, Rubin said.

Rubin said a guardian is usually a family member or friend but should always be someone who can be trusted.

Rubin has helped clients design trusts to fit specific wishes for the pet. One of his clients wanted all of her cats to continue living in her house after she died. Her trust assigned a guardian to live in the house and take care of the cats until the last one died. In exchange, the guardian lived in the house rent-free.

Any money remaining when the pet dies is usually given to the guardian, an animal charity organization or a family member. Jones advises against leaving it in the guardian’s name because it might create an incentive to not take proper care of the pet.

The Cavalier Cottage

Levy, 66, has always included her dogs in her will, though she won't say how much money she's leaving them. She has had 15 dogs in her adult life; nine have been King Charles Cavaliers. Throughout the years, she has adjusted her pet trust for each dog. At one point, one of her Cavaliers, Mikey, had brain surgery and needed other medical attention, so he had a bigger fund.

Levy has no children — or “humanoids,” as she called them — and no other family to care for Sophie and Nessa after she dies. So she created a trust and made a contract with longtime friend John Dodam, chairman of the MU Department of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery. If something should happen to Levy and her husband, Dodam will care for the dogs. Then, if Dodam feels he cannot permanently take care of the dogs, Levy’s Cavalier breeder will find them a home, and the trust will be available to that person.

Levy said she trusts her breeder will find them the right home.

“I would prefer my girls to have to adjust to a house where they are loved,” she said.

Lifetime care program           

Neal Cohen, a clinical psychologist, and his wife, Jackie, also want their animals to continue living on the land they know. So they have created a pet trust for someone to take care of their pets on the property after they die.

"This is their home," Cohen said. "And I think it would be easier on the animals to continue to live in our home.”

The couple lives on a 480-acre estate north of Springfield. Their menagerie sounds like something out of the "Twelve Days of Christmas": 30 ducks, eight cats, seven dogs, six geese, three horses and three miniature donkeys.

Their estate, which joins Pleasant Hope Conservation Area for a mile, looks like something out of a storybook – a secluded cottage surrounded by lush land where the animals roam.

It is a random collection of animals that were either given to them by friends or rescue groups. Nigel, a Great Dane who thinks he's a cuddly lap dog, was found starving in a junkyard. Their cat, Mewmew, has a neurological disorder and was given to them by a friend who couldn’t care for it.

Cohen and his wife are planning what they call a multidimensional project. One part of the project is a lifetime care program for animals whose owners have died or are going into nursing homes that cannot take pets. An endowed animal can be admitted into the program.

Cohen wishes all animals could be in the program, but there has to be some limitations, he said.

He envisions the land having cabins for people to stay with pets, trails for them to walk on, crematoriums and a veterinary care center.

He is also interested in the benefits of the bond between humans and animals. As part of the project, there will be an education center to teach people about the health and wellness benefits of having pets, as well as a research center to study those benefits.

The couple is searching for well-endowed, reputable organizations to join the project.

“We will choose people who we can trust and have integrity and are animal lovers,” Cohen said, as he sat in a chair with a cat on one shoulder and Rocket, his favorite dog, climbing all over him.

The couple hopes to have definitive plans for the project by spring 2012 and launch the program that year. After they die, their house will be used in the program.

Fighting bad publicity

Rubin said pet estates or trusts are an important area of the law, and he said he hoped it would continue to grow.

Jones, the Columbia attorney, predicts that in 20 years, creating a pet trust will be a common practice.

“People continue to make pets more and more a part of their life,” Jones said. “For the right people, pet trusts are very valuable.”

Some of those people are lawyers. After Rubin did a lecture on pet trusts in the summer, the majority of attorneys who attended his session incorporated pet trusts into their work, he said.

But some — including lawyers — don’t understand the dedication to a pet. Rubin knows the practice of creating pet trusts can be misconstrued. 

"You hear about people who are crazy and left all their money to an animal," he said. "They think that’s what we’re talking about."

Barbara Levy has become familiar with this as well. "We have had negative remarks. 'You could do better things with your money,'" she said, recalling what people have saidto her. "Everybody has their priorities in life. We’ve always been pet lovers."

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Barry Seltzer October 27, 2011 | 4:29 a.m.

Though news articles of this type underscore the need for planning in advance regarding one’s estate, they also serve a useful purpose to highlight for the general public the need and importance of including ones pets in their estate planning. To provide excessive funds for the care of one’s pet very often ends up with a lawsuit and eventual court decision reducing the bequest or trust amount. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this type of court intervention, it is an aspect that must be considered when planning. There are many questions raised when planning for companion animals that bear discussion and sometimes there are no easy answers.

Our intention when we created our book, ‘Fat Cats & Lucky Dogs’, was that it would be an easy to understand and complete resource of information and ideas that the general public could immediately use; for providing guidance to those who would like to explore planning possibilities for their families and pets; and for stimulating people to take action before they are in a position where they can’t.
We hope as many people as possible will be encouraged to deal with this type of planning rather than leave it to others and the courts when they no longer can.

We believe our book is of great value to everyone who loves their companion animals.


Barry Seltzer, Lawyer & Professor Gerry W. Beyer, Governor Preston E. Smith Regents Professor of Law,Texas Tech University School of Law

A few observations about ‘Fat Cats & Lucky Dogs’

I have received ... a copy of your book, Fat Cats & Lucky Dogs. I look forward to reading it. Thank you for thinking of me.

Supreme Court of the United States

The book if full of wonderful anecdotes and sound advice. I know I will enjoy reading it.

Sincerely yours,

Supreme Court of the United States

Thank you for...your book...I look forward to reading it. It is so nice to see other animal lovers taking time to instruct people on how to care for their pet's well being.

Martha Stewart

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 27, 2011 | 7:52 a.m.

On a different line, the media sometimes misleads the public as regards final outcomes of tort litigation. I hasten to say that there is no indication that the media intentionally does so.

Article (or TV news item): John Jones has sued X Corporation for causing his chronic illness and has been awarded $1,000,000 (or more) by a jury. Well, that's verifiable (court records) and it's news.

Later, on defendant's* appeal, another judge significantly reduces the award.

But that seldom makes news, or it's buried somewhere in a newspaper.

The effect on the public is that all you need do is get a good attorney and you can clean up. Actually, a high percentage of such legal actions are settled out of court.
No jury is involved.

*- My experience involves diseases resulting from exposure to certain chemicals or processed natural materials. In such cases it is common to have multiple defendants. In one trial in San Francisco we ended up spending more money on attorneys and expert witnesses than the jury awarded the plaintiff (from us); the other two defendants got hammered.

(Report Comment)
David Rubin November 14, 2011 | 2:17 p.m.

I just submitted a correction to this article. In the interview, I referred to parrots and macaws and other larger birds. They can live long lives of 50 years or more. Parakeets have a much shorter life span. But of course, they too, should be provided for.

I want to "parrot" what another attorney said in his comment, above. This is also something I advised the writer of this article. The most important thing is to provide a good estate plan for the humans and their loved ones. We can then make sure that the animals are also looked after. But first priority is to take care of the HUMANS!

(Report Comment)
David Rubin November 14, 2011 | 6:53 p.m.

One other comment! I just sent in a second correction.
I don't "lecture the Missouri Bar." I present to lawyers on behalf of the Missouri Bar on this topic. I don't think the Missouri Bar would welcome me "lecturing" them! LOL
Thank you!

(Report Comment)

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