People often develop close ties to their pets; in fact, a bond often develops which can make it feel as if the pet is part of the family. Despite the existence of such a bond between a pet and his or her owner, the law considers a pet to be property. Accordingly, you can state who is to receive your pet upon your death just as you can gift your interest in your car or your home.
If you choose to provide for the gift of your pet to a specific individual, the person that you designate will become his or her owner and will have the discretion to treat the pet as he or she sees fit.
Should you fail to state who you would like to receive your pet on your passing, your pet will form a part of the residue of your estate and will be distributed accordingly. If you pass away without a Will, the pet will pass according to the laws of intestacy. Please see my post entitled, ‘If all your have is debt, do you still need a Will?‘ for a discussion of what happens to estate property on an intestacy.
Some pet owners wish to include instructions regarding how they would like the pet to be cared for. While your pet’s new owner may find the information useful, such a statement is not legally binding and, therefore, the new pet owner may choose to make decisions contrary to your stated wishes.
It is important to note that money or property cannot be left directly to a pet. An emerging trend is the creation of trusts which set aside money for the care of a pet, in recognition that it can be a costly endeavor to take ownership of an animal. A benefit associated with establishing such a trust is that it reduces the cost incurred directly by the individual you gift your pet to and, as a result, is likely to reduce the chance of the individual refusing to accept the gift.
Establishing such a trust allows you to set aside money for the caregiver of your pet and to designate a trustee to ensure that the pet is being cared for. You can structure the trust so that the caregiver receives a certain amount to cover regular pet expenses and the trustee has discretion to pay out lump sums should the pet’s needs change. This may be beneficial should health issues arise which require costly treatments.
While these concepts may seem simple, there are complex rules regarding how long a trust is permitted to run and how it should be structured. Therefore, as with all estate planning matters, advice and guidance from an estates lawyer can help ensure that your wishes are followed to the extent possible and that your pet is well taken care of, even after you’re gone.