Pets & Estate Planning

Pets are not only companions for many people, they may also be loved family members. Legally pets are the property of their owners, so your pet can’t inherit anything. Your pet will be inherited.

Failing to document arrangements for your pets in your will or worse still failing to make a will means that you have no control over the future care of your pets. Even when a pet owner dies with a will rather than intestate, the outcome for the pet may not be what the owner wanted. Things can go wrong, but there are a number of different options pet owners can consider to try to prevent this. 

Arrangements for the care of a pet after the owner dies can be informal or formal. 

Informally, the pet owner may nominate a dependable person as a care-taker, preferably someone who is expected to outlive the pet. A back-up person may also be nominated in case the first person pre-deceases the pet or ceases to be able to care for the pet.  The outcome of these informal arrangements may be quite uncertain. An informal arrangement may not be accepted by the executor and beneficiaries under the will and legally your pet is distributed as property under the will. This would be a particular concern if your pet had significant monetary value.

Formal arrangements made through a will can include:

  • gifting the pet, with or without a sum of money (often calculated to cover food, housing, veterinary and other expenses), to a friend or family member;
  • gifting the pet and some money for the benefit of the care-taker to a trust for use during the lifetime of the pet. On the death of the pet the remaining funds might go to the care-taker, another person or a charity; or
  • gifting some money and the pet to an animal charity; it’s a good idea to get guidance from the particular charity if you want to do this.

Interim arrangements until probate is granted are also important for a pet’s continued wellbeing. There is a need to plan for an efficient and effective transition. On the death of the owner, an appropriate and legally empowered person needs to access the pet and care for the pet while your executor obtains probate and deals with the estate. Communicating with your named executors and recording directions for collecting and managing the pet, as well as providing funds if your chosen carer may need them are important steps in your pet care plan.  

Some of the things that might go wrong resulting in a pet not being cared for the way the owner wanted include where the person named in the will cannot or will not take the pet and there is no alternative  beneficiary named, think about alternatives.

A carefully drafted will with clear instructions will help to ensure your pet is cared for by whom you choose and in the way you intended.  Naming an alternate beneficiary is a good idea, you may also wish to specify additional wishes; such as that pets that have bonded remain together, that your pets are left to the person who will be the guardian of your minor children or that your pet’s social needs are considered.

Good estate planning can help to ensure your four legged family members are well looked after. Pet rescue stickers on windows can alert authorities to the presence of pets in your home if you were to die or be suddenly taken into hospital. Documenting information about the pet, for example owner and emergency contact details, pet identification, insurance, health, veterinary and vaccination records, and dietary needs, is also helpful.

This article was co-authored with Anne Hamilton-Bruce during her GDLP placement