How to look after your pets after you’re gone

Most of us make unofficial plans with family and friends about the care of our pets when we are gone, but what if you want to put in place more formal arrangements?

Australians own over 29 million pets – one of the highest pet ownership rates in the world (fun fact, apparently, we like dogs more than cats). Most of us consider our pets family. So, how can you look after your pets when you are gone?

Your Will is the obvious starting place to record your instructions. Pets are not people, in fact legally speaking they are ‘property’ and therefore cannot directly inherit a gift from you. What you can do instead is:

  • In your Will, give your pet to a family member or a friend who has expressed an interest in looking after your pet when you’re gone;
  • Perhaps give a sum of money to that person conditional on them taking your pet;
  • Set out your wishes in a letter or in your Will as to how your pet is to be looked after;
  • Investigate a registered pet charity and find out how to gift your pet to them so that your pet will be re-housed or looked after by the charity for the rest of their lives; or
  • If you want to get really serious, consider establishing a ‘pet trust‘ in your Will that will look after your pets during their lifetime. The trust must be administered for the purpose of looking after your pets and upon their deaths, the fund is wound up and distributed back into your estate or elsewhere. The terms of the trust can say where the pets will live, how much must be spent on their care and importantly who will look after them.

Don’t forget that you might lose legal capacity and in such cases your pets need to be looked after during your lifetime too. You can include terms in your Enduring Power of Attorney that expressly deal with the care of your pets.

You should seek legal advice if you are going to include the care and maintenance of pets in your Will. Common errors people make are leaving the gift to their pet directly, for example “I give my cat, Mr Cuddles, $5000!” or gifting their pet to an incorrectly named charity, or a charity that no longer exists.

If you are going down the road of a pet trust, these have to be drafted carefully so they are effective in properly maintaining and caring for your pets (hint: there are key legal differences between a ‘wish’ and a ‘direction’).

Perhaps your main consideration might be the actions of beneficiaries excluded from your Will in favour of your pet. In 2007, the famous American hotelier and estate magnate Leona Helmsley left $12 million in a trust in her Will to benefit her aptly named dog ‘Trouble’. The gift was eventually reduced to $2 million after successful actions by two of her grandchildren who were left out of her Will. It should be noted, that Trouble received over 30 death threats along with her inheritance, so $100,000 per year ended up being spent on her security!

Less colourfully, but perhaps more relevant to us, in Australia, a Will gifting a $400,000 estate to the RSPCA was successfully challenged by the deceased’s three children resulting in the charitable gift being reduced by 60%.

How we can help

If you want to make sure your ‘furbaby’ is looked after when you are gone, we can advise you how to best achieve this in your estate planning. Call us on 1300 654 590.

Marshall & Ors v Redford  NSWSC 763

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