When the infamous hotel operator Leona Helmsley – known to many as the “Queen of Mean” – died in 2007, she created a stir by leaving her Maltese, “Trouble” a $12 Million trust fund (courts later reduced the amount of the trust to $2 Million). Ms. Helmsley’s actions received much coverage in the press, and most of it related to the apparent absurdity of leaving such a large amount of money to a pet.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first century, the place our pets hold in society has dramatically changed. Animals have gone from the barnyard, to the backyard, and now into the bedroom. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, more U.S. households have pets than children.
What does this mean for estate planning? Was Leona Helmsley a trendsetter? While leaving multi-millions to an animal might seem a bit excessive, the underlying point – taking steps within your estate plan to care for your pet after your death – is a critical one. For the many pet owners that consider their pets as family members, providing for those pets within an estate plan is a significant consideration.
If you are a pet owner that wants to include provisions in your estate plan for your pet(s), it is not as simple as providing for children and you need to consult with an estate planning attorney who knows the proper planning method given your state of residence. Why? Because pets are considered under the common law as tangible personal property. In other words, in the absence of a statutory provision stating otherwise, the law regards our pets as more akin to furniture, jewelry, etc., than children. That strikes many pet owners as cold, but it is a reality that has to be dealt with if proper planning is to occur.
Because of pets’ status as tangible personal property, a direct bequeath (i.e., gift) to a pet is ineffective. Pet owners therefore have three alternatives:
1. Forty states have adopted a form of “pet trust” via statute. These trusts are created during the life of the owner and become effective when the owner is unable to care for their pet(s) or dies. The trust names a trustee who will serve as the caregiver for the pet; the owner has to estimate the costs of care for the pets who will be the trust beneficiaries and that amount of money will be transferred to the trust.
2. For pet owners in states such as Minnesota which has not adopted a statutory pet trust provision, providing for pets is a bit more complicated, but is still feasible. In these states, an owner can bequeath the pet and a sum of money to a specific individual within their will with the requirement that the individual care for the pet for the duration of the pet’s life. The language of the bequeath in the will should specify that if the individual receiving the pet and the money is unable or unwilling to care for the pet, or if the pet has predeceased its owner, then the gift is null and void. If you pursue this alternative, the gift should be accompanied with a set of instructions to the individual as to your desires for the pet’s care and, of course, you should consult with the individual prior to naming him or her within your will.
3. A third method is to bequest a sum of money to an organization which is committed to find a home for the pet; a pet owner pays for the pet’s care with a minimum endowment to the organization which can vary based upon the age of the owner, the age of the pet and the size of the pet.
Far from being a laughing matter, estate planning for pet owners is serious business. Providing for your pet within your estate plan gives you piece of mind that your beloved animal companion will receive the same level of love, affection and care after your life as it did during your life.
NOTE: the information contained herein is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation. Contacting the proprietor of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship. Please do not send any confidential information until such time as an attorney-client relationship has been established.