Pets in Wills and Trusts

October 26, 2011 by  
Filed under Cat Sitting & Care Stories

Have You Remembered Your Pet in Your Will?

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”  In today’s society, our pets are treated more and more like true members of the family.

Pet owners will spend about $10 billion for veterinary care in 2008.  In 2001, $28.5 billion was spent providing for companion animals.  All this expenditure comes from the love and care that people have for the pet family member.  And much like any important member of the family, many pet owners are planning for the eventualities regarding the future care of their beloved pet.

Pet Caregivers

In the legal field there has been a movement towards estate planning devices designed specifically to address the care of a pet in the case of the caregiver’s incapacity and death.  According to some sources, between 12% and 27% of pet owners include their pets in their estate planning, including wills.

Under the current law, you cannot leave money to your pet in your will.  A pet is considered property under the law, and you can’t leave property to property.  If you do, a court may find the pet clause to be void, and the money will go to another beneficiary in the will.  The pet’s status may be left in limbo.

However, you still may be able to provide for your pet after you are gone.  You can always formally bequeath you’re your pet to a family member or trusted friend that has agreed to take on the responsibility.  This would be introduced as a valid pet clause in your will.  Furthermore, you should always name a replacement caretaker for your pet in case there has been a change in circumstances.

Pet Trusts

Another method of providing for your pet is the pet trust.  Trusts are considered by some experts as the most predictable and reliable method to provide for a pet animal.  A pet trust names a caretaker, or trustee, to manage money specifically for the pet’s care.   Many high-profile individuals have died with significant provisions in their trusts for the benefit of their pets. For example, last winter Trouble, the fluffy white Maltese of “The Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley, passed away after years of being the world’s richest dog.  Mrs. Helmsley, who died in 2007, left the dog $12 million in a trust for its care.  After Mrs. Helmsley’s death, the dog was cared for by Carl Lekic, the general manager of the Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel.

Singer Dusty Springfield made provisions in favor of her cat, Nicholas to be fed imported baby food.   Also, Doris Duke, the sole heir to Baron Buck Duke who built Duke University and started the American Tobacco Company, left $100,000 in trust for the benefit of her pet poodle, Minnie.  However, not every state allows pet trusts.  You should carefully check the laws of your state, or consult with an attorney.

For over a century, U.S. pet owners have tried to provide for a wide variety of animals, including dogs, cats, parrots, horses, burros, and chimpanzees.  The law has acknowledged that a decedent’s pets may be her closest friends, companions, and even “sole immediate family.”  Let’s make sure to provide properly for their future.

About The Contributor: Kyle Courtney, a lawyer, works at Harvard law School, and has two cats and two rabbits.