Should You Make Provision for Your Pets in a Will?
We have all seen the stories of eccentric millionaires who leave their fortune to their pets in a Will. Their relatives are cut out of the Will, but Fido receives a very generous legacy. But it’s not as easy as you may think to leave something to your pets in a Will.
One of the most famous of these cases is that of billionaire Leona Helmsley’s dog. He was the lucky pooch who inherited $12 million from her estate. The Maltese dog, perhaps appropriately named “Trouble” was one of the major benefactors of her estate. Some of the family members weren’t quite so fortunate. Two grandchildren received nothing, and Leona evicted her son’s widow after his death. Trouble did not get quite as much money as he bargained for as a judge later reduced the amount to $2 million. The grandchildren who Leona excluded were awarded $6 million and the balance went to charity.
Leona Helmsley earned the title of “Queen of Mean” during her lifetime. She served 18 months in prison for tax evasion. Unfortunately, her gift to her dog made Trouble the most hated dog in the country. He is said to have received numerous death and kidnapping threats, so had to have a permanent security guard with him. He lived in style, but only spent about $190,000 a year. Most of that was on his security detail. Although we are sure there was plenty left over for grooming and food.
What about other pets?
Dogs aren’t the only pets to feature in a Will. Blackie became the world’s wealthiest cat in May 1988 when he was left $12.5 million by his British owner, Ben Rea. Blackie had previously shared a mansion with his owner and 15 other cats. However, he was the sole survivor at the time of Mr. Rea’s death. Three cat charities also benefited from the estate. Rea did not leave money to any relatives, but he did take care of his gardener, plumber and a friend. He came from a cat loving family. His sister died two days before him and she left all her fortune to cat charities.
Whilst these stories grab the headlines, there is a serious message behind them. You can make provision for pets in your Will. Whilst most of us are not going to provide for our pets to live in complete luxury and leave them millions of dollars, we should be thinking about them when we write a Will. Here are some questions that you need to ask if you want to provide for pets in a Will.
Who Will Look After My Pet?
You will want to appoint a caregiver for your pets in a Will. Think of someone who you know will care for your pet just as you do. Always ask the person before you name them in your Will. It is important to know that they are willing to take on this responsibility. You can leave the decision up to the executors of your Will. You will leave a list of possible care takers and your executor will choose between them.
Providing Money for Pets in a Will
Can you leave money to pets in a Will? Not directly. All of the 50 states are very clear on this matter – you cannot leave any part of your estate directly to your pet. Your dog cannot have a bank account or own property. The way that you can make a provision in your Will for your pet is to leave money or property to the person who you have designated to take care of your pet. The provision is not water tight. All you can do is request that the care giver uses the money for the animal. They cannot be directed to do so – there will be no consequence for them if they use your beloved pet’s money for another purpose.
This is why the choice of care giver is very important. You have to trust that the person who will look after your pet will actually use the money for the animal and will care for it as you would wish.
Using the service at USLegalWills.com to include your pet
When you step through the Will service at USLegalWills.com you reach a section on distributing your estate. You can then choose to leave specific items to individuals.
Your pet is considered to be one of your possessions, or assets. So you would name your pet as the item to be left, and the name a beneficiary (as well as an alternate beneficiary in case your first choice is unwilling or unable to take on the responsibility). You would then leave a second specific bequest of a sum of money that would be used for the care of the pet.
What if You Can’t Find a Caregiver?
You may not be able to find someone to take care of your pets. In this situation you should think about appointing a charitable organization to take care of your pet. You can appoint a shelter or humane society to look after your pets in the event of your death. If you decide to do this, you should check out which shelters will accept your pet. Usually they will be more willing to do this if they will be receiving a bequest.
You should visit several animal shelters until you find one that you are happy with. Talk through with them how they choose people to adopt pets in their shelter. Practices vary a lot from place to place. You want to make sure this will be the best temporary home for your pet, and that they will have a good chance of being adopted into a loving home.
In some states, such as New York, you can make a conditional bequest. This can be a way to get around the problem that you cannot directly provide money for your pets in a Will. If you leave a bequest to an individual, you can make it conditional upon them caring for your pets. This is somewhat difficult to monitor, but an executor has the duty to establish that the money is being used to care for your pet.
You do need to check if the state where you live accepts these provisions, otherwise they will not be legally binding. This kind of provision can be overturned if challenged, so should always be drafted by a qualified person.
Generally, we recommend that you do not include a conditional bequest in your Will, as it puts a tremendous burden on your Executor who may be required to spend 15 years checking on the health of your pet, and then take back any bequest if the pet is being mistreated. It’s extremely difficult to enforce.
Trusts for Pets
You may want to consider if you can provide a trust for your pet in a Will. Certain states allow you to establish a trust to be used for the benefit of your pets. This is useful in the situation where an animal could live for a considerable amount of time and has been used to provide for horses, parrots and other animals which have a longer life span.
Pet trusts do allow you to take into account the age of the pet. You don’t know when your Will is going to come into effect, so the caregiver’s responsibility may be for a a few months, over many, many years. The trust allows you to leave a sum of money calculated based on the age of the pet at the time of your death.
Provisions for Pet Euthanasia
This is a subject which many pet owners would find abhorrent. However, some people do leave a provision in their Will that their pet should be euthanized in the event of their own death. Courts across the country have repeatedly refused to uphold any provision of this type.
An individual could make provisions for a care taker to be appointed. They could then state that if another home was not found within a certain period of time the pet would be euthanized. This provision cannot be legally binding. The only thing that someone is doing in this situation is making their wishes known. Rightfully so, no one can be forced to carry this out.
Can Your Pet Be Buried with You?
The answer is that it depends upon which state you are buried in. Some people express a very strong wish that their pet should be buried with them. However, the law is very confusing in this area. Most states have not even addressed the issue of whether or not a pet can be buried in the same place as their owner.
Some states now have laws which allow it. New York introduced a provision in 2014 which permits cremated human remains to be buried alongside pet remains in a licensed pet cemetery.
This was an issue which was important to Leona Helmsley. She was buried in Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Westchester county and wanted her dog, Trouble, to be buried alongside her when his time came. However, this request was refused by the cemetery who cited regulations which prevented non-human remains being buried there.
No one really knows where Trouble’s final resting place is. His remains were said to be ‘privately retained’. Leona Helmsley was interned in the Helmsley family mausoleum. As the family have their own key, no one will ever know if Leona got her final wish and someone carried out her instructions. Most likely, Trouble’s final resting place will always remain a mystery.
Tim Hewson is one of the founders of USLegalWills.com.
He has over 20 years of experience helping people to write their Will and other estate planning documents. He has been interviewed by many of the major news media outlets, and has contributed to articles in The New York Times, NY Metro Parents, U.S. News & World Report, and other leading publications. He has also contributed to a number of financial planning books.
Throughout his career, Tim has written extensively on the subject of Will writing and estate planning.
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