Who Gets The Fur Babies?
Helpful Tips for Creating a Pet Trust
Who gets the fur babies? Estate planning for your animals. Many of you may remember “The Queen of Mean,” Leona Helmsley, who died in 2007. Leona may have embodied some of the worst character traits that we can think of, but she certainly loved her pup. “Trouble,” the Maltese, was left $12 million in Leona Helmsley’s Last Will and Testament and immediately received over two dozen death and kidnapping threats. Trouble has long since passed away, but the memory of the multi-millionaire pampering her dog and leaving her more money than most will ever see often sparks the question in the Texas animal lover “how do I take care of my pet if something happens to me?” It is a question that I have shared as a dog lover and adopter of four little four-legged friends.
When I speak with my clients about how to address their animals in the estate, I always like to give at least two options. At minimum, the animals need to have short term care. When a person or people pass away it can often be days or weeks before the remains are discovered, depending on friend and family situations. If you live alone and you have a pet, someone should have the immediate responsibility of taking care of that pet if something happens to you. This means that they have access to your home and can take the pet in while the deceased’s affairs are sorted out.
That being said, what can you do to make sure that your beloved pet is taken care of according to your wishes and your pet’s individual needs in the longer term? When I draft Last Will and Testaments for my clients and we discuss their pets, the first thing that I ask is who they trust with their loved one(s); because let’s face it, our pets become family to most of us.
Texas law treats pets as personal property. If you fail to specifically account for your pet in your Will, it will pass according to the residual clause, which could cause issues if the remainder of your estate, after specific assets are distributed, passes to multiple people.This could cause family fights over who gets the pet, and the court can’t exactly “split the baby” as it were here. Also, if none of your family wants the responsibility of caring for your pet, they can reject the transfer of the pet by disclaiming that portion of the inheritance.
A simple and cost effective solution to these potential issues is simply communication. Before thismatter ever gets in front of a probate court, a pet owner should just ask their friends and family who would willingly take their pets if something were to happen to them. Finances should also be considered so that those that would take care of your beloved little fur babies need not have to break the bank to care for them as you would.
Let’s face it; we all spoil our pack to some extent, especially when they have been in a shelter; all of a sudden we can give them a life that they never dreamed of while on the streets. Once you get an idea of who gets the pets and how their care can be paid for, we just specify those details in your Last Will and Testament. We specifically grant ownership of the pets to those that you trust to care for them and make sure they are bequeathed enough money for their care.
If you are like us, and you have a perpetual rotation of pups though your home (I have never not had a dog in my 3ish decades of life), you will not want to use specific names in your Will, as the court can’t grant custody of a pet that is no longer with us. Just account for your “Pets” in the Will and that will apply to whichever one is living at the time of your passing. You will also want to periodically review your Will to make sure that you have given enough money for their care according to inflation. Many attorneys that focus primarily on estate planning (look over here!!) will gladly give their clients periodic reviews of their estate plan. In my firm’s case, that review does not come with an extra bill attached and occurs on a yearly basis.
A more comprehensive option for pet owners is to have a qualified attorney draft a Trust for their pets. This option is good for those pets with specific needs, such as medical treatments, or in Trouble’s case, a $100k per year security team. Oftentimes, this option is used where valuable sporting dogs or show dogs are involved as they can be income producing assets.
A Trust specifically details what care is to be provided and in what manner. Trusts are also often administered by corporate entities that understand the complex nature of the high level of care the Trustee must give to the Trust and its assets (your pet). A Trust should be properly funded, just as you should fund those that you grant possession of your pets to in a Will, so that the specific needs of your pet can be paid for. Many pet owners have other concerns, like minor children, so they choose to draft a Family Trust and place their pets within that Trust. This especially useful if parents want to keep children and pets together if the worst were to happen and both parents were lost at the same time.
At the end of the day, there are multiple options for a pet owner to provide for the care of their loved ones, both four and two legged. An estate planning lawyer can review all of your options and help guide you through the decision making process so that you get the peace of mind of knowing exactly what is to happen when you are no longer there to care for your pets.
About the Author: Joshua D. Wilson is a Central Texas Attorney and founder and principal of J.D. Willson Law Firm, PLLC. He specializes in assisting families with estate planning as well as other areas of legal services such as wealth preservation and charitable giving. Please visit his website to learn more.