Animal shelters see it all the time: a family brings in a dog or cat whose owner has died because they are unable or unwilling to care for the pet. Those are the lucky ones. Many beloved animals are abandoned, when there’s no plan in place to care for them. At the other extreme are multi-million dollar trusts set up for the care of a pet. What if you wanted to leave your entire estate to your pet?
Sorry, but no, you can't leave an estate directly to your pet.
NJ.com’s recent article, “Can you leave an estate to a pet?”, explains that animals can’t own property. Your cat doesn’t have the necessary legal capacity. However, your estate or part of an estate can be left for the benefit of a pet. There are two options.
Pet Trust. This is a trust document that establishes the purpose of the trust, who it will benefit and how the assets held in the trust are to be administered for the beneficiary. Think of Leona Helmsley. She was a hotel heiress who left $12 million to her dog. Technically, she left the money in trust and a trustee managed the funds for the life of her Maltese.
The trust should also state who receives any money left in the trust, when the pet dies. That’s known as a remainder beneficiary.
From a legal standpoint, animals are considered property, even though pet lovers consider them furry friends or family members. You need to name someone to take ownership and care for your pet.
You can also forego a trust and simply leave your pet and a sum of money to care for the pet to a designated person without a trust. But there’s no guarantee that after you die, the person you selected won’t just pocket the money and give the pet away. There’s less structure and certainty in this, but it’s a less expensive option to set up.
Animal Rescue and Adoption Agencies. Many animal organizations have a plan in place that allow you the peace of mind of knowing that your pet will be cared for, if you predecease your pet. The process usually involves making a donation to the organization and they, in turn, make a commitment to either finding a loving home for your pet or caring for your pet at their facility. Do your homework: visit the organization and make sure that you are comfortable with their level of care before adding these instructions into your will.
Reference: NJ.com (July 12, 2017) “Can you leave an estate to a pet?”