Although it may sound like the storyline out of a bad episode of a soap opera, people can and do leave their estates to their pet dog or cat. While this might sound like a difficult idea that would require the best professor out of Harvard Law, leaving your home or life savings to your pet is not an overly difficult process. If you are concerned about what will happen to your four-legged friend after you die, it is best to contact a lawyer specializing in wills. Most lawyers specializing in this field will be able to easily include provisions in your will for the care of your pet. This type of legal work is known as a pet trust.
With the exception of Minnesota, every state in the United States allows pet owners to establish pet trusts and gives lawyers and executors of estates the power to enforce them. However, creating a pet trust is more complicated than simply willing that your pet is given your home after you pass on. Rather, pet trusts require many different factors that will allow for your pet to be taken care of when you die. Specifically, a lawyer writing a pet trust would require his or her client to specify how their animal is to be taken care. This would require the owner to detail the lifestyle their pet has become accustomed to since being welcomed into their home. Factors such as money for property taxes, mortgages, and utilities would further need to be taken into account. Most lawyers writing this type of trust would also consider the animal’s projected lifespan.
Legally, your home and assets would also not be given directly to your pet. Instead, the pet trust would name a caretaker for the animal. This caretaker would be willed your assets with the express purpose of them being used for the care and upkeep of your pet. For example, if you named your sister the caretaker of your cat Mittens, Mittens would be given to your sister by the executor of your will along with whatever funds you deem necessary for her care.
In this example, setting up a trust is a major advantage over simply willing your money to your pet. Naming a caretaker ensures that your pet will immediately be looked after by someone that you trust upon your death. This further negates wait time in probate courts, where your pet might not get the money until the case has been heard by a judge. Pet trusts have the added benefit of allowing owners to name enforcers. An enforcer is a third party designated by you or your attorney who makes sure that your caretaker is respecting your final wishes and looking after your pet in an adequate manner.
As to be expected, caretakers will inevitably accrue some benefit from looking after your pet. If your pet trust gives your animal a piece of property, the caretaker will benefit by being able to live at the property. If the trust gives money to the caretaker for the animal’s upkeep, the individual has a financial benefit. Lawyers who have written on the subject further suggest that a caretaker might even try to abuse the trust to continue the benefit.
Gideon Rothschild, an attorney with the law firm Moses and Singer’s, gives the example of a caretaker cheating the trust to continue reaping benefits. In Rothschild’s example, the caretaker of a cat adopts one that looks like the subject of the trust after the original animal’s death, thus allowing him to continue being paid as a caretaker. To prevent this type of abuse, lawyers usually recommend DNA testing of the animal. Others recommend giving the caretaker a final lumpsum payment as incentive to report the animal’s death to the trust.