Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Pets and Estate Planning

If you own a pet, and are elderly (or if you own a particularly long-lived animal, such as a parrot), you probably have concerns about what will happen to your pet in the event that they outlive you. I won’t spend a lot of time diving into the importance of estate planning (suffice it to say, despite the fact that it’s a very unpleasant topic, it’s essential if you have any interest in what happens to your assets upon your passing).

So, if you’re writing a will, and want to ensure that your pets are taken care of, what’s the best course of action? Well, the best course of action is sort of a matter of preference, and depends on your individual circumstances. The worst course of action, on the other hand, is not in dispute: the worst (or least effective) thing you can do in this context is to simply leave money to your pet in your will.

Under the laws of every state in the United States, and just about every other jurisdiction on Earth, animals cannot take legal ownership of property. And because a will has the effect of giving legal ownership of your property to whomever you designate, and nothing more, any language in your will that purports to leave money or property to one of your pets will be invalid. Obviously, you won’t be penalized for it, and it won’t affect other provisions in your will that are valid, but it will have absolutely no legal effect. From a legal standpoint, you might as well have written gibberish.

So, we know that you can’t simply leave money or property to your pet. But that doesn’t meant that there’s nothing you can do to ensure that your furry or feathered friends aren’t taken care of, should they outlive you – you’ll simply have to work within the law. It’s important to remember that, legally, pets are pieces of property. Although animals, particularly pets, enjoy legal protections against cruelty and neglect, in most other respects, they aren’t much different from a piece of furniture, as far as the law is concerned: they can be bought, sold, given away, etc. This means that you can leave your pets to a person in your will.

So, if you want to ensure that your pets are taken care of, you should leave them to a close (human) friend in your will, along with some money (if you can spare it), to at least partially cover the costs of taking care of an animal. Of course, it’s essential to discuss this matter with your friend beforehand, to make sure that they are willing and able to take care of your animals, if necessary, because when you leave any property to someone in your will, they don’t have to take it if they don’t want to.

With this in mind, your will should have several alternative options with respect to your pets, in case your first choice for their caretaker changes their mind, or is unable to care for your pets, for whatever reason. Obviously, if you have other friends or family members, they should be considered as options. As a last resort, you might consider leaving your pet to a no-kill animal shelter, or breed rescue group, along with a monetary donation. This will ensure that your pet is taken care of, and given the chance to find a new home.

John is a writer for LegalMatch.com and the LegalMatch.com Law Blog. This article is for informational purposes only, and should not be considered legal advice. If you require legal advice, you should speak with an attorney licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction.

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