Most pet owners view their pets as members of the family. Sixty-two percent of U.S. households now include at least one pet, and there are more households with dogs than with children. Consequently, many pet owners make provisions for their pet in their estate plan.
For example, after actress, bombshell, and all-around badass Lauren Bacall passed away in August, her will divided her estate amongst her three children, after specific bequests for her grandchildren and two employees. She left an additional $10,000 to her youngest son specifically earmarked for the care of her beloved dog, Sophie.
Bacall was not the first celebrity to include her pet in her estate plan, but she may have been the most reasonable. Dusty Springfield’s will reportedly included provisions that her cat, Nicholas, was to be fed imported baby food, serenaded to sleep by her songs, and was to be “married” to a friend’s cat. Leona Helmsley infamously left $12,000,000 to her dog, Trouble, but left nothing to two of her grandchildren. A court later cut Trouble’s “inheritance” down to $2,000,000 (Trouble’s caretaker estimated the dog’s yearly expenses at $190,000, including $100,000 for security).
You don’t have to be an eccentric celebrity and can, in fact, be a perfectly reasonable normal person to include your pet in your estate plan. One option in California is a statutory pet trust. Prior to 2008, bequests for the care of animals were merely “honorary,” which offered little protection for ensuring that an owner’s wishes were being carried out or that their pet was receiving adequate care. California Probate Code § 15212 now provides for statutory pet trusts, which are enforceable in court. Interested persons or nonprofit animal charities can inspect the animal’s living environment, the records of the trust, and the health of the animal itself. The trust terminates at the animal’s death. Any remaining funds are then distributed as specified in the trust document.
Before setting up a statutory pet trust, a pet owner would need to make some strategic decisions: Who would be willing and able to care for the animal? Who would be willing to serve as the trustee after the owner’s death? Would those people be compensated? Owners would need to estimate how much money would be required to provide for the pet’s care, taking into account the animal’s age, medical history, and the life expectancy of the species. For example, if you own a tortoise, macaw, koi, or horse, your pet is likely to outlive you, potentially by decades. By setting up a trust, you are also able to leave instructions about your pet’s medical needs, food preferences, and socialization.
Please consult an estate planning attorney to discuss this and other options for providing for your pet (or pets) and their future care in your estate plan. Whether to require imported baby food and a security detail for them is, obviously, up to you.