Let’s begin with the story of a cat named Boots. In December 2011, a woman in suburban Chicago passed away leaving no next of kin. She did, however, leave a will that she had signed 20 years earlier, which stated that any cat that she owned at the time of her death shall be euthanized and the remainder of her nearly $1.4 million estate be distributed to twelve different animal charities.
It seems as though provisions to euthanize pets stem from the well-intentioned (but perhaps misguided?) belief that no one will love and provide for a pet as well as the owner. However, there are steps one can take to ensure that pets will receive TLC after the owner’s death. Plus, judges simply don’t like killing animals, and often invalidate such will provisions because they are against public policy. Thankfully for Boots, lawyers intervened and arranged for her to be transferred to a no-kill shelter.
What are your options when you want to include Fido and Fluffy in your estate plan?
- Leave Your Pet to a Trusted Family Member or Friend. The simplest way to ensure for your pet’s well-being is to leave him or her to someone that you trust to be a responsible and loving pet owner. It’s easy to add a simple provision to your will. For example, in my own will I leave my cat to my sister, and if she is unable to take my cat, then to my parents. Both already have my cat’s feeding and care instructions in my in-case-of-death roadmap, so I know my cat would have a loving home if I were to die before her.
- Leave Your Pet to an Individual or No-Kill Shelter along with a Specific Amount of Money. What happens if your friends or family have concerns about taking your pet? Perhaps they are worried about the financial commitment that comes with pet ownership. You can minimize this risk by adding a specific sum of money to your bequest. For example: I leave my dog to my friend, Jane Doe, along with the sum of $10,000 if she accepts my dog. A potential disadvantage to this technique is that the use of the money cannot be enforced – once the friend has the money, she can do whatever she wants with it. Nothing is stopping her from spending the money on a tropical vacation instead of saving it to pay future vet bills. Or, what happens if it’s not feasible for your friends or family to take your pet? For the no-kill shelter, there is a concern about it not accepting an older animal because of the medical cost and lower probability of adoption, but including a donation with your pet can help. Some pet organizations even have specific programs that provide lifetime care for your pet in exchange for a monetary bequest. The Guardian Angels Pet Care Program at PAWS is an example.
- Establish a Pet Trust. When you think of pet trusts, you likely think of Leona Helmsley, who bequeathed $12 million in trust to her dog, Trouble (later reduced to $2 million by a judge). This is an extreme example–you don’t need to be wealthy to create a pet trust. Pet trusts are valid under Illinois law, and are exactly what they sound like: money is held in trust for the benefit of your pet during the pet’s lifetime. The advantage of using a trust instead of giving a specific amount of money is that the trust can be enforced in court if the trustee is not properly expending the funds for your pet. Of course, since the court has jurisdiction over the trust, it can also reduce the amount of the trust if it finds the amount substantially exceeds what is necessary to care for the pet. After the death of your pet, the balance of the trust is distributed to whomever you name as a remainder beneficiary.
Whichever choice you prefer, be sure to raise the issue of pets with your estate planning attorney (who really should raise the issue without you prompting him or her . . .).
As for Boots, her story has a happy ending. She was adopted by a loving family several months after arriving at the no-kill shelter.