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Ev'rybody Wants To Be A Beneficiary: Estate Planning in Disney's "Aristocats"

Over a cold December weekend, Rachel, Fern, and I had the opportunity to enjoy a Disney Plus marathon. Part of the lineup was Aristocats, a movie I had not seen in over 30 years and definitely not through the eyes of an Estate Planning attorney. Rather than enjoying the movie for what is, an entertaining animated cartoon, I now see it as an example of very poor Estate Planning.

When you think about complex legal concepts, Disney files features aren’t the first things that spring to mind, yet here we go…


Summary:

Madame Adelaide Bonfamille, a wealthy, retired opera singer, has no living relatives. She adores her cat Duchess and the little kittens.

Madame calls her lawyer, Georges Hautecourt, to come visit and “write her will.” Her long-time butler Edgar eavesdrops downstairs as she reveals to Georges that she wants to leave her very large estate to her cats and then to Edgar (a Life Estate to her Cat Duchess and her descendants with remainder in fee simple absolute to the Edgar the butler).




"Will, eh? Will, will..."

"Now, then, Madame, who are the beneficiaries?"


"Well, as you know, I have no living relatives"


"Naturally, I want my beloved cats to be always well whatever cared for"



"Certainly, no one can do this better than my faithful servant, Edgar."



"Adelaide, Madame, you mean to say... you're leaving your vast fortune to Edgar? Everything you possess? Stocks and bonds? This-- Well, this mansion? You know, your country chateau? Art treasures, jewels and--"


"I simply wish to have the cats inherit first. Then, at the end of their life span, my entire estate will revert to Edgar."


Edgar is to care for the cats until their death, and only then will he inherit her fortune. As is often the case in true crime shows, the butler begins hatching criminal plans for the cats’ early demise.

Edgar abandons the cats in the countryside to ensure they don’t inherit. The furry foursome must make their way back to their owner with help from friends along the way.


Legal Question: Can you leave the entirety of your estate to your pets?


Answer: Yes…sort of. While you can’t *actually* leave the money directly to your beloved pet, you can set up what’s known as a pet trust.


However, Aristocats fails to mention that you cannot name cats (or dogs) as beneficiaries of your estate. Instead, Madame Bonfamille could have named a trusted person as the beneficiary and stated in her will that this person is to receive money to take care of her cats.

One negative to naming pet provisions in a will is that wills go through probate. Courts have the ability to change what a will states and the process takes much longer than you would probably like.

Therefore, she should have created a Pet Trust. A Pet Trust works by naming your pet(s) as the initial beneficiary of the Trust as well as a Trustee. Like most other trusts, the Trustee pays out money for the health, maintenance, and support of your pet for its lifetime. Upon the death of the pet or pets named as the beneficiary, the remainder of the trust assets would pass to the secondary beneficiary (in the case, to Edgar).


Legal Question: How could Madame have prevented Edgar from committing 'Felicide'?


Answer: Yes! It’s known as the Slayer Rule Generally speaking, an estate plan beneficiary cannot inherit any property, fiduciary appointment, or power of appointment from a testator who the beneficiary intentionally and feloniously kills. The rule also applies if the beneficiary kills someone else (besides the testator) who had to die before they could inherit. In the case of an estate planning document (will or trust), the entire document is interpreted by the court as if the slayer died before the testator. (This causes the gifts to said slayer-beneficiary to lapse.)


WHAT KIND OF KILLING TRIGGERS THE SLAYER RULE?


Most states have a statute related to the slayer rule, typically the killing must be:

1) intentional; 2) felonious; and 3) without legal justification, like valid self-defense. Murder and some forms of manslaughter (such as voluntary manslaughter) tend to fulfill these requirements. Negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter typically won’t qualify, as the slayer lacks the required element of intent.

But your Estate Plan can contract around this, by adding Slayer Rule language to your Estate Plan.

From my analysis, it appears that Madame Bonfamille’s attorney, Georges Hautecourt, although learned in many general legal areas, was not an Estate Planning Attorney. If he was, he would have asked more detailed questions and drafted her plan to protect her beneficiaries’ interests and lives!


If you want to avoid these problems that Madame Bonfamille, Duchess, and her kittens experienced, give us a call at 314-759-6400.

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