A pet trust is a legal arrangement that provides for the care and maintenance of pets that outlive their owner. See EPTL 7-8.1 (a). Typically money is placed in the trust and the trust agreement states who is the trustee and how the money is to be used. In some instances, the estate plan goes beyond providing money for the care of the pet. In some instances it even provides that the decedent’s home be maintained for the pets to live in.
In the case of In re Copland, Lenore Lewis Abels, the decedent, made extensive allowances for the care of her cats. However, the executor of her estate asked the Surrogate’s Court to approve a reduction in the amount of money transferred to the testamentary pet trust established under the decedent’s will.
On February 16, 2003, the decedent executed a will that provided $115,000 in cash bequests to various charities for the care of animals and, except for her house, the rest property was to be sold and distributed to her named trustees to be used as follows:
- $35,000 in salary and a $5,000 bonus per year to her housekeeper, Eugenia Eugenia
- Funds were allotted for Eugenia to maintain the home and care for her cats;
- When the last cat died, the home and its contents were to be sold, and the remainder distributed to 33 animal oriented charities plus a $50,000 bonus to Eugenia
On February 9, 2007, the decedent died. On October 15, 2007 letters testamentary and letters of trusteeship were issued in the decedent’s estate to Copland and Maino. An inventory of assets filed in 2007 reflected assets in the decedent’s estate totaling $4,761,346.2
Copland filed a petition requesting that the court (1) reduce the amount to be transferred to the trustees to either $440,000 or $1,000,000 minus $628,000 (the amount already expended) for an amount of $372,000 and (2) permit the sale of the home.
In support of his petition, Copland asserted that the co-executors have been fulfilling the terms of the trust with estate funds because funds have never been transferred to the trust for the life beneficiaries. He also asserted that the home needs significant repairs, the taxes and upkeep on the home are very expensive, and Eugenia has indicated a willingness to leave the home and have the co-executors find and pay for a suitable new place for her and the cats to live.
Several of the charitable trust remainder beneficiaries filed an answer which denied knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the bulk of the allegations in the petition. Eugenia filed an answer generally denying the allegations in the petition. She also denied that she agreed to relocate with the decedent’s cats. Further, she asserted that the co-executors, having failed to timely file tax returns, were hoping to reduce the pet trust so that the taxing authorities might consider a charitable deduction, thus perhaps minimizing tax liability. She requested that the court deny the petition.
In support of his request to reduce the amount of money transferred to the pet trust, selling the house, and moving Eugenia and the cats, Copland argues that the pet trust can be reduced if the home is sold, and Eugenia moved to a less expensive residence. Copland arrives at a sum certain by approximating the life expectancy of the cats and Eugenia’s monthly costs to take care of them. He further argues that the reduction is necessary to meet the decedent’s wishes to benefit the charities as well as her cats.
While some of Copland’s points may have merit, his requests also disregard the decedent’s wishes. The decedent gave very specific instructions as to how she wanted her cats to be cared for. She did not indicate that she wanted the most economical path. Her plan included that Eugenia care for them in her house, that Eugenia receive a salary and bonus, and that money is set aside for the upkeep of the house and care of the cats. If she had wanted to dispose of her assets to give more money to the charities right away, she could have.
Copland’s request amount to rewriting the decedent’s will. That is something that courts do not do.