Who will take care of your pets?

Did you know that you cannot leave a bequest directly to a pet? The law treats a pet as a possession. This means that you can leave your pet to a person (as a carer), but you cannot leave a sum of money directly to your pet. So how do you ensure the wellbeing and care of your pets?

According to Statista, 59% of all UK households have a pet. There are over 12.5 million pet dogs and 12.2 million pet cats in the UK. Have all of those owners considered what will happen to their beloved pet if they die? In most cases, we assume that a family member or friend will step in to care for the animal, but that doesn’t always work out. Now, not all of us have pets and the idea of leaving thousands, if not millions, of dollars sounds a little crazy. But to those of us animal lovers that have pets, it’s only logical and practical to ensure that your furry friend has some resources to be cared for once you’re gone.

Caring for your pet
credit: 123rf

The Legal Basis

Legally, you can’t leave money to your pet(s) as they’re viewed as “chattels” (property) under the law. Instead you have to leave money directly to the friend or relative who will inherit your pet when you die. This normally entails setting up a trust for the benefit of the pet from which the caregiver can withdraw funds for their care.

If you don’t know anyone who would be willing to look after your pet, you can leave it to a charity. Several charities, including Blue Cross, RSPCA and World Horse Welfare will take pets left to them in a Will. Make sure you include details of any arrangements in your Will.

How to care for your pet through the service at LegalWills.co.uk

At LegalWills.co.uk we have a specific page within our Will writing service that allows you to set up care for your pet(s).

Care for your pet at LegalWills.co.uk

When establishing care for a pet, you cannot simply leave a fixed sum of money. This is because you don’t know when the Will is going to come into effect. Costs also change throughout the life of a pet. At LegalWills.co.uk we address this by allowing you to specify a life expectancy of the pet. For example, for a dog, you might put 15 years. For a cat, this could be 20 years, for a horse, 30 years and for a parrot, it could be 90 years!

You then enter the date of birth of the pet, which establishes the anticipated length of time that the caregiver would likely be caring for the pet. If you are not absolutely sure of the date of birth, for example, if you adopted the pet, you can approximate the year of birth.

Next, you set an amount of annual maintenance that you wish to provide the caregiver for the care of the pet. Keep in mind that costs generally increase as the pet ages, and medical bills in the final years of a pet’s life can be significant. But you must also include food bills, grooming and any treats and accessories. According to Statista, the average cost of owning a dog in the UK is about £1,800 a year (but this does include a £420 annual boarding fee).

If you were completing this page for your dog, you could consider an annual maintenance allowance of £1,500+ to give adequate resources to your caregiver.

You then name the carer. It is a good idea to discuss this appointment with the person that you have selected, so that it doesn’t come as a complete surprise. You may also want to discuss the annual maintenance allowance.

The service then allows you to name an alternate (backup) carer.

Once completed, the set up will look something like this:

Completed set up of pet care in the Will

Notice the option at the bottom of this page. If you are married, you can choose for this pet care to be in place only if you and your spouse are both unavailable. Alternatively, you may like this carer to care for your pet even if your spouse is still alive. This very much depends on your spouse’s relationship with your pet.

How the Will works in practice

Your Last Will and Testament is a series of instructions to your Executor. They must gather your assets and distribute them according to the instructions in the Will. The clause that deals with your pet would look something like this:

IN THE EVENT that my wife, Jane Green, predeceases me, this gift shall carry a sum of money as a legacy payable from my Residuary Estate to Jill White PROVIDED THAT Jill White looks after my Bulldog, named Buster, free of tax for Buster’s upkeep and maintenance (hereinafter called “Buster’s fund”). If this person is unable or unwilling to act for any reason, then Buster’s fund should be paid to Jennifer Grey PROVIDED THAT Jennifer Grey serves in place of Jill White. The amount of Buster’s fund is to be calculated on the basis of Buster’s age at the date of my death, on the assumption that Buster’s life expectancy is 15 years of age and that the average annual cost of Buster’s upkeep and maintenance is £2,000. Buster’s fund will therefore be an amount calculated by multiplying the sum of £2,000 by the number of full years and full months between the date of my death and February 1, 2031. In the event that Buster has died at the date of my death then this gift shall fail.

Clause in the LegalWills.co.uk dealing with the care of a pet

The clause instructs your Executor to calculate the amount that will be passed on to the carer for the care of Buster based on Buster’s age and life expectancy. This is much more effective than simply giving £10,000 to the carer, or even requiring a monthly or annual stipend to be given to the carer for the rest of Buster’s life.

Pet Trusts are on the increase

One of the most controversial and high-profile cases of putting a pet in a Will was in 2007. U.S. billionaire Leona Helmsley left her dog, a white Maltese named Trouble, a $12-million (U.S.) trust fund. Her grandchildren contested the Will and, in 2008, a judge later knocked the pup’s inheritance down to $2 million. Trouble took the money and retired, flying by private jet to the Helmsley Sandcastle hotel in Sarasota, Florida. The hotel’s general manager cared for the dog and spent hundreds of thousands on her care annually. This included $1,200 on food, $8,000 on grooming and $100,000 for full-time security (Trouble had received death threats). The little Maltese passed away at the age of 12, and her remains were supposed to rest beside Leona’s in the family mausoleum, but the cemetery refused. Instead, Trouble was cremated and her remaining money went to the Helmsley Charitable Trust.

This case raised awareness to pet trusts and that they are legally possible. This example, along with the 10,000 baby boomers who turn 65 every single day, means that many pet owners are thinking more about their mortality and their pets.

It is always important to remember that your request should be for the benefit of the animal and not just your own desires. For example, a court in New Brunswick, Canada, intervened in the early 1990s, when a local man put a clause in his Will requesting that his four horses be put down by the RCMP when he died. The Mounties refused and the court struck down the direction in the Will on the basis that it was against public policy.

Many lawyers will receive similar requests from clients wanting to have their pets euthanized after they die, believing nobody else can properly care for them. The Canadian case is important to remember as it warns that wishes may not always be met.

Most requests however are straightforward, and it’s an excellent idea to provide for your pet if you are concerned for their wellbeing after death. After the pet owner’s death, in the midst of grief and estate administration it is easy for pets to become an afterthought at best, and forgotten at worst. This is why planning and communication is key. For example, along with your estate plan you should have a written list detailing how many pets you have and their location. It should contain contact information for your veterinarian, pet-sitter, and at least one trusted friend who is willing to care of your pets if something happens to you. You can even use the LifeLocker service at LegalWills.co.uk to do this.

Some celebrity pet stories

For those of you considering a pet trust, here are a few celebrity examples of wealthy pets:

Nicholas the ragdoll cat: When singer Dusty Springfield died in 1999, she instructed that her money be used to care for her 13-year-old ragdoll cat. The Will stipulated that her cat, Nicholas, be fed imported American baby food and live in a 7-foot-high indoor treehouse with amenities that included catnip, scratching posts and a bed lined with one of Springfield’s nightgowns. Nicholas was also to be played Springfield’s recordings each night before bedtime. The singer even arranged for her cat to be “married” to a 5-year-old English blue breed that belonged to her friend, Lee Everett-Alkin, whom she named as Nicholas’ guardian.

The English Terriers: Before British fashion designer Alexander McQueen died in 2010, he left a note that read, “Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee.” He left $81,000 for his three English bull terriers’ care which was put into a trust for the canines and will pay for their care for the rest of their lives. Alongside the trust, most of McQueen’s remaining fortune was donated to animal charities.

The Church of Red: Often referred to as the “million-dollar tabby,” Red was the beloved cat of Canada’s reclusive David Harper who died in 2005 with no heirs except his pet. Harper left his $1.3 million estate to the United Church of Canada. In exchange for the money, he stipulated that the church would have to look after 3-year-old Red. The rich feline was the last in a long line of orange tabby cats named Red that Harper took in over the years.

Bubbles the chimp: Michael Jackson left his chimp $1 million to ensure he would have a “secure long-term future.” However, so far Bubbles hasn’t seen a penny of his inheritance. The chimp now lives in an animal sanctuary in Florida, and animal trainer Bob Dunne says he’s not sure if Bubbles will ever receive his share of Jackson’s money.

Flossie the Lassie impersonator: In 2002, Drew Barrymore surprised her Labrador mix, Flossie, with a new doghouse — her Beverly Hills home which she left in trust for the pooch. What inspired such an extravagant gift? In 2001, Flossie barked and “literally banged on the bedroom door” to awaken Barrymore and Tom Green, her husband at the time, to alert them of a house fire. Flossie saved their lives and now stands to inherit a $1.3 million house, making her a millionaire mutt.

A Countess, Gunther and Gunther’s son: When Carlotta Liebenstein, a German countess, died in 1991, she left her fortune to her dog Gunther III. The canine died a month later, but his wealth was passed on to his son, Gunther IV, whose estimated worth is $372 million, making him the richest pet in the world. Gunther is said to have a personal maid and a chauffer-driven limo, and there are even reports that he owns a home in Miami that once belonged to Madonna.

Choupette, Karl Lagerfeld’s cat: Although Choupette already has a lucrative modeling career earning several millions of pounds a year, she was also included as a beneficiary of Lagerfeld’s £150M fortune.

Write your Will today

If you do have a pet, and you are concerned about how your pet will be cared for should something happen to you, then we recommend that you prepare a Will today. If you use the service at LegalWills.co.uk you can write your Will in about 20 minutes, for just £49.95. Once your Will is in place, you have complete peace of mind knowing that you have named a carer, and that sufficient funds have been allocated from your estate to pay for the care of your favourite animals.

Tim Hewson