So what happens to our trusty companions when we die? Who will care for them? And will that person have enough money for a lifetime of caretaking? Here are five things you need to know about protecting your beloved Mr. Jiggles when you are gone.
- Pets are tangible property. In most states, pets fall into the same category as your car, furniture and jewelry. While they mean so much more to us than that, the law looks at them as chattel. Since the law regards pets as possessions, ownership of them is typically transferred in a will along with the artwork and household furnishings.
- Choose a caretaker wisely. Most people leave their pets to a child or immediate family member who will happily take care of the pet without additional monies left expressly for that purpose. If you don’t have a close family member to take your pet, consider leaving them to a friend, neighbor or other more distant relative. One of my elderly clients is leaving her pet to her dog walker who has already agreed to take the dog. Other clients, who have no one to take their pets, have left them to the local humane society or pet shelter with a substantial donation.
- Follow the money. Some clients will leave an outright gift of a certain dollar amount. The money is intended to be used to care for the pet, but often there is no requirement that the person use the money for the pet. Be aware that cousin Louie could take your cat Fluffy and the money, but then drop Fluffy off at a shelter the next day. You can condition the cash gift to Louie on his keeping Fluffy, but who is going to police that? And how do you ensure the level of care that Fluffy receives? A pet trust is the best way to prevent this scenario from happening.
- Creating a pet trust. Many states allow for pet trusts. You create a trust and on your death transfer ownership of the pet and cash to the trustee. The trustee then has to use the cash to care for the pet. On the animal’s death, the remaining assets are distributed in accordance with your written instructions in the trust. The trustee cannot use the trust assets for himself, although he can take a fee.
- Don’t leave your pet too much money. If you do, the court may reduce the amount of money held in trust for the pet’s benefit. Courts do not like to see folks punishing their heirs by leaving all the money to the dog. Remember the story of Leona Helmsley, the New York hotel heiress who left the bulk of her $12 million estate to her little white Maltese named Trouble? Helmsley was dubbed the “Queen of Mean” for disinheriting family members and leaving so much to a dog instead of family members or charities. A judge later reduced Trouble’s trust to $2 million, but Trouble still lived out her life in the lap of luxury with round-the-clock care and a security guard in Florida (there were kidnapping threats). The cost of her care was reportedly $100,000 per year.
Most pets do not need $100,000 per year for care. A much smaller amount will often suffice. And when the pet passes away, the rest can go to your family members, or better yet, to your local pet shelter or humane society.
Read more related articles at:
5 ways to make sure your dog will be protected after you die
How To Make Sure Your Pets Are Taken Care Of After You’re Gone
Also, read one of our previous Blogs at:
Estate Planning for Pets: How to Protect Your Furry Friends
Click here for a short informative video from our own Attorney Bill O’Leary.