As a reward for being our constant companions, in sickness and heath, many pets are now included in their owner’s wills. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Betty White, along with millions of other pet owners, plan to leave money to their pets. But, without proper planning, the courts could take that money away!
Strange requests in wills are nothing new. People have asked for their ashes to be spread in space or for their bodies to be displayed in a theater. Recently, billionaire Leona Helmsley made news after her death by bequeathing $12 million dollars for the care and upkeep of her dog, Trouble. Opinions varied from outrage to amusement and a legal battle was narrowly averted when a New York court reduced that amount to a mere $2 million.
It is only natural for pet owners to be concerned about the well-being of their four-legged companions, especially if the owner happens to die first. But the unfortunate truth is that many pet owners attempt to leave an inheritance to their pets instead of money. This error could lead to their request not being met by the probate court.
Wanting to leave money for the care of your pets is not a new concept. According to the website, www.animallaw.info, English common law began to recognize pet trusts as far back as 1842. But, pets cannot receive an outright bequest of property (money, house, etc) from a will because animals are considered property themselves. So, leaving money directly to one or all of your pets is not permissible.
Some legal experts argue that the primary problem to setting up a trust for your pet is the fact that no human beneficiary enforces the terms. Simply put, who will go to court to make sure that your pet is getting the right dog food and that the trustee has not bought a new car with your money?
Sadly, there is always the possibility that the probate court, when reviewing your will, could find that your generousness is “capricious” or “frivolous”. Fortunately, there is good news for pet owners who are concerned about caring for their pets who survive them. Following a few guidelines will allow your attorney and the courts to carry out any wishes for your pets.
First, create and carry an “Animal Card” so that if you are injured or die unexpectedly, emergency personnel will know that somewhere a beloved pet is waiting and relying on your return. This card should list the pet’s name, type of pet, location, and any special care instructions. Having your veterinarian listed is also highly recommended.
Similarly, create an “Animal Document” to place with your will or estate documents.
Next, if you plan on providing for your pets after your death, name a human beneficiary who will receive funds to cover the pet’s expenses and be your pet’s caretaker. Obviously, discuss this possibility with the potential caretaker ahead of time to insure he or she is willing to care for your pet. Naming alternate caretakers is recommended by some legal experts.
Although painful to deliberate, your will should provide some instructions and resources for the final resting place of your pet at the conclusion of its life.
Many courts are reluctant to enforce a “euthanasia order” for the pet in your will. You might believe that your pet will grieve inconsolably at your death, but courts have determined that this type of provision is an act of cruelty and public outrage is often very strong. More practically, an owner cannot willfully order the destruction of property at the time of his or her death.
As with all things legal, you should discuss your wishes with an attorney who knows your state’s laws for pet trusts. Some states have allowed owners to leave money for pets in an honorary trust, but these types of trusts are completely unenforceable. Legal experts caution that your wishes could go unsatisfied.
Insuring the identity of your pet in your will is also vital. Some cases have come to light in which trusts were abused by the beneficiary who used a succession of similar animals (“black cats”) as a means to procuring more money. Your veterinarian can help you positively identify your pet by implanting a microchip or guide you to one of the DNA identification services.
As more people keep pets later in life and veterinary medicine continues to advance our pets’ life spans, there is a real possibility that your pet could outlive you. Proactive measures can insure that your pet is not left unattended in the event of your death or disability. Your estate attorney can help organize the best plan for your means. Additionally, your veterinarian may have resources detailing organizations that offer homes for pets who survive their owners.