By by Martin M. Shenkman, CPA, MBA, JD
Has Estate Planning Gone to the Dogs (Cats!)
Or Why You Shouldn’t Hire a Lawyer that Just Says Yes
By Martin M. Shenkman, Esq.
A recent article on the internet points out the utter insanity of what estate planning can become. The author did an admirable job lambasting a bunch of rich folk who pursue have left absurd amounts of wealth to their animals (and I speak as a died in the wool critter lover!). But there is another story here that wasn’t told. A story that has wide ranging importance to anyone and everyone. First, we’ll let the cat out of the bag, then we’ll discuss the life lesson for all.
A cat inherits $13 million -- that's not cute, it's insane.
By: Tony Hicks, Contra Costa Times
Posted: 12/14/2011 07:01:34 PM PST
…A former stray cat in Rome just joined the ranks of the world's richest animals when its owner left it $13 million…Tommaso, a 4-year-old black cat, is now the richest feline in the world, according to the International Business Times…Tommaso inherited the money when its owner, Maria Assunta, died two weeks ago at the age of 94, according to Britain's Telegraph newspaper. Assunta was the widow of a property tycoon, and had no living relatives…Italian law doesn't permit animals to inherit property…So the estate's lawyer arranged for the property and the money and the cat to go Assunta's former nurse, who now lives in an undisclosed location.…This isn't the first time we've seen this, nor will it be the last. Leona Helmsley left her dog $12 million. Oprah Winfrey is planning to leave her dogs $30 million, according to Women's Day. Michael Jackson left Bubbles the Chimp $1 million…Sure, make provisions in your will to keep your pet comfy and happy with someone else you trust. Pay them a few dollars, if that's what it takes. Then do something with the money that can actually benefit other living entities, be it sick children or endangered whales…
What can a cat (or dog) teach you about your estate planning attorney? Plenty. Read on.
The author rightfully criticized Assunta, Winfrey and Jackson, but he didn’t tackle the real culprit, the lawyers! What were the lawyers in all these cases doing leaving wealth to animals that, could never be used or enjoyed (how many Kibbles and Bits can you eat?). The lawyers basically enriched a few caretakers and wasted fortunes that could have done so much good in the world. And why might the lawyers have written these outrageous wills? They were undoubtedly paid their fee for the work, perhaps handsome fees at that. If you asked any of the attorneys why they would draft such inappropriate wills they would undoubtedly have defended their actions by stating emphatically: “That’s what the client wanted.” So here’s the life lesson for all. Hire lawyers (and for that matter, CPAs, wealth managers, and others) who have the backbone to tell you what you are doing is ridiculous. If you want to have someone “yes” you no matter how inappropriate your actions buy a dummy cheap and do your documents on line for a pittance. Skip the lawyer. If you really want to get your planning in order skip the “yes” lawyers and hire one who will give you real options, explain the real implications of what you are doing and challenge your thinking.
Remember the housing crisis (oh you must as it is still ongoing). Do you realize that so many of the people that bought houses they could not realistically afford were not alone at the closing table when they consummated the purchase. There was a real estate broker present. A lawyer to handle the legal work. Almost always a mortgage broker or financial person to facilitate the mortgage, and perhaps a title company agent. Lot’s of “yes” people. The result, millions of financial lives ruined. Don’t hire “yes” professionals, hire thinking and opinionated ones who are committed to helping you make real decisions, even if they are tough, and especially if they are different then what you initially suggested.
Here’s a test you can use. When you meet your new estate planner and he or she inquires as to what you want done on death, tell him or her you want to disinherit one of your children, or leave 25% of your wealth to your pet iguana. If what follows is not a serious questioning of your motives and rationale. Head for the door.
Caring for a loyal animal is a wonderful thing. Rich cats make no sense. Get a lawyer who will stand up to the challenge!
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