Pet protection in estate planning

According to the law, your cat is a piece of property like your computer, a cashmere sweater or favorite chair. Of course, people love their cats and dogs far more than they ever care for inanimate possessions. They are our friends and family.

So it is not surprising that many New Yorkers make arrangements for their beloved pets in their estate planning.

As the American Bar Assocation (ABA) notes, “only legally enforceable documents can guarantee a pet’s secure future.” Far too often a person passes on, unaware that their treasured pet will be abandoned or discarded because there were no arrangements made.

We have all seen news stories in which people are mocked for taking care of their pets with an estate plan, but the reality is that these useful provisions have become increasingly common in recent years.

The ABA points out that many people believe that a will adequately protects their pet after they are gone, but the reality is that a will distributes property. So your cat will be given to Person A, but that is the extent of the usefulness of a will in this context. Person A will not be required to take care of the cat according to your desires.

For many pet owners, creation of a pet trust makes more sense than a provision in a will. These can include not only instructions for the care of your pet if you are incapacitated, but also for care after you are gone.

You can discuss with a Queens estate planning attorney creation of a pet trust that includes arrangements for the care and well-being of your pet. You can also discuss administration of a trust with an experienced probate and trust lawyer.

School’s use of librarian’s gift comes under fire

It is a four and a half hour drive northeast of Queens to the tidy University of New Hampshire campus. If you make the trek, you might pause for at least a moment to gaze at the new scoreboard at the school’s football stadium. The school has come under fire from critics unhappy with the decision to use $1 million of a surprisingly large estate gift from a frugal New Hampshire librarian.

Robert Morin dedicated much of his life to UNH, graduating there in 1963 and working in the school’s library as a cataloger for nearly 5 decades. By the end of his life, he had amassed a fortune of $4 million, which he bequeathed to his beloved alma mater. It is very possible that if he had spent time on a more detailed estate plan , the controversy surrounding his generosity might have been avoided.

UNH allocated only $100,000 of the $4 million from Morin to the library. The school celebrating its 150th anniversary this year is spending $2.5 million on a career center and $1 million on a video scoreboard, according to Business Insider .

Morin was a nearly obsessively frugal man. He lived alone, ate cheese sandwiches for lunch and frozen dinners he heated with a microwave for dinner.

He also had an ability to focus like few others. For instance, he read in chronological order every book published in the United States from 1930 to 1940, excluding textbooks, children’s books, cookbooks and books on technology. He also spent nearly two decades watching movies: 22,000 of them in the years 1979 to 1997.

Morin’s financial advisor says he asked the librarian many times if he would like to designate his funds for specific uses at the university. Morin always wanted to give the school discretion over the spending.

The school acknowledges the scathing criticism it has received from alumni and others over the decision to spend so little on the library and so much on a scoreboard, but says the “feedback . . . does not change our decision.”

About $400,000 is yet to be designated.

We will never know if Morin would choose differently if he had a second chance to be so generous. Perhaps he would have made his wishes more detailed, and spared the institution he loved so much some heated criticism.

Gene Wilder’s privacy, wealth raises estate planning issues

The great comedic actor Gene Wilder recently passed away from Alzheimer’s disease complications at 83 years old. He wanted people to best remember him for the laughter he brought audiences in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory , Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, among others, so he kept his condition out of the public eye.

As his family told The Washington Post , “The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble.” Wilder leaves behind a loving family, wife of 25 years, and countless adoring fans. He also, reportedly, had an estimated net worth of about $20 million at the time of his death. When faced with a debilitating illness such as Wilder experienced, many people want to be remembered for the highlights of their lives and prefer to maintain a level of privacy as their star fades. But that secrecy can raise issues about estate plans. Keep in mind that emotions run high when someone we love passes and that’s a good reason to have your affairs in order before you decline. Another reason is to protect against those who might prey on human frailty and direct estate finances to their own benefit.

If you are a beneficiary, or should be the beneficiary, of an estate plan involving someone with a debilitating condition such as Alzheimer’s Disease, and you are surprised at the estate plan, there may be a legally valid reason to contest the will or trust. Some of the reasons are listed below.

Lack of capacity

Estates can be challenged based upon a person’s lack of mental capacity. It’s not uncommon for someone who was disinherited to bring such a claim. Ask yourself, was the person who passed of sound mind, memory and understanding when they executed the plan? Here are a few things to consider:.

  • Did the testator (the person creating the will) understand the plan and all of its provisions?
  • Did the testator understand the full, detailed breadth of their assets?
  • Was the testator affected by a mental or physical disorder when making these decisions?

Undue influence

Another delicate issue than can arise out of changes to an estate after a person has become ill is undue influence. Those closest to a person with failing health and faculties have tremendous sway over the life of someone in failing health and can create a bias toward or against certain family members, loved ones and charitable organizations. Like lack of capacity challenges, this too can have a mixed bag of emotional and financial motivations. Here are some things to consider if you are considering a challenge because a will doesn’t reflect a person’s true wishes:

  • Was the testator directly coerced into making stipulations or changes?
  • Was the testator overly dependent or trusting of the person who exerted influence?
  • Was the testator susceptible due to illness or frailty?
  • Did the person exerting influence substitute his/her wishes for the testator?

Contesting a will

Gene Wilder’s family explained that he maintained privacy about his illness because “He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.” Proper estate planning can maintain those smiles after you pass as well. However, if you believe an estate does not reflect the wishes of a family member or loved one, contact a law firm with experience in estate planning and probate cases.