St. Louis Attorney Finds Unusual Way to Get People Interested in Estate Planning

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Attorney David A. Rubin of St. Louis has found an unusual way to get people interested in estate planning: talk to them about their pets.

No one really likes to talk about what will happen to their possessions after they die. But pet lovers are even less happy at the prospect of their companion ending up in a shelter or on the streets.

They discount their own value, but they elevate the value of their pets, Rubin said. If that's what it takes for them to see a lawyer, I'm all for it.

Missouri is among a growing number of states that are recognizing that, just like human beings, people's pets can be protected by trusts.

As a result, pet owners in these states are sitting down with estate planning lawyers to craft documents that will ensure the well- being of their animals once the owners die or become incapacitated.

And if anecdotal reports are any indication, some of these animal owners are sparing no expense to make sure that Fido and Tabby will continue to live comfortably until they too are ready to depart this world.

Eden Rose Brown, who heads a four-lawyer trusts and estates practice in Salem, Ore., reports that she recently set up her biggest pet trust ever, a $2 million trust for a corporate executive with no children and a batch of dogs and cats. The trust requires that the pets continue to live in their current home, which will be occupied by a salaried caregiver until the last animal is gone. The remaining balance in the trust will then go to charity.

And this kind of money isn't unheard of - baby boomers are notorious for the amount of money they spend on pets, and now that they are heading toward retirement and planning the disposition of their estates the wealthier animal owners in their ranks are creating six-figure and even seven-figure pet trusts.

Opportunity for business

To Brown, these developments provide opportunities for trusts and estates lawyers that many are letting pass by.

A lot of lawyers don't quite see it yet, she said. They think it's frivolous.

Thirty-three states now allow the creation of pet trusts, with nine more currently considering legislation to do so, according to attorney Ann Chambers, president of the Omaha, Neb.-based Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF).

Two states, California and Wisconsin, authorize honorary pet trusts, but because they are not enforceable they are of limited value.

Although bills were proposed in the 2004 and 2005 legislative sessions in Oklahoma that would have allowed for the creation of pet trusts, both failed to make it to the governor's desk.

Missouri had such honorary trusts until 2004, when the state Legislature adopted laws allowing for court-enforceable pet trusts. The law went into effect at the beginning of 2005.

Scot Boulton, an attorney with Polsinelli Shalton Welte Suelthaus PC in St. Louis, is chairman of the Missouri Bar's committee for probates and trusts. He said that in Missouri such trusts are relatively rare, and that setting up pet trusts is something lawyers may deal with once in a while, but in which few specialize.

It's not that people hang themselves out as 'Ace Ventura, Pet Lawyer,' he said.

Chambers said that before these statutes were enacted, people did seek to ensure care for their pets. But because only humans could be designated as trust beneficiaries, clients had to rely entirely on the trustworthiness of designated caregivers.

People would set up trusts for their pets, but without legislation, they weren't enforceable, she said. There were horror stories. Humans would end up with the estate and the animals would end up in shelters.

ALDF became a strong proponent of laws to ensure that trusts would provide the care that pet owners wanted, and it also helped draft a Uniform Probate Code section to validate domestic or pet animal trusts in 1990. …