The pet heir is a popular movie and TV trope. Rich person gives his or her fortune to the family pet rather than disgruntled relatives. Hilarity ensues. In real life, you may remember some celebrities leaving sizable estates to their beloved pets. Miami heiress Gail Posner gave her chihuahua Conchita a multi-million-dollar mansion. Oprah Winfrey has reportedly set aside $30 million for her beloved dogs, Lauren, Sunny, Lyla, and Luke. You may not be a celebrity millionaire, but can you leave your fortune to a pet?
How to Leave your Fortune to a Pet
The most common answer to any legal question is, it depends. A pet is not a person that can sign papers, hold title to a house or a car, or form a contract. Therefore, you cannot simply give property to a pet in a will because an animal cannot accept the inheritance. But you can name a pet in a will and designate a relative or friend to take care of your pet after your death. In most cases, this is the easiest way of providing for a pet’s care after your death. However, doing so merely gives the pet to a relative like any other property. What they do with your pet is up to them. Any promises to care for your pet are not binding. Therefore, you may want to create a binding agreement that sets aside specific funds to exclusively benefit your pet. You can do so with a pet trust.
What is a trust?
To understand pet trusts, let’s first take a brief look at what a trust is. A trust is a legal relationship between multiple people to administer property for the benefit of someone else. If you are the person who created the trust, you are what’s called a settlor or grantor. The administrator of the trust is called a trustee. The trustee holds title to the trust’s property and oversees its distribution to the trust’s beneficiaries, such as your children or pets. Once the trust ends, the remainder beneficiary receives the remaining balance of the trust, if any. Trusts are more difficult and expensive to set up than wills, but they offer numerous benefits, including the ability to provide for your pets.
What is a pet trust?
A pet trust is a special kind of trust that names a pet, rather than a person, as a beneficiary. NY Est Pow & Trusts L § 7-8.1 codifies “Honorary Trusts for Pets,” New York’s version of a pet trust. It allows you to create a trust to benefit your pet that will remain in force for the remainder of your pet’s life. Originally, these trusts could last a maximum of 21 years and many websites still state so. However, in 2010, New York’s legislature eliminated this restriction, allowing you to set up trusts for pets that live longer than 21 years. More importantly, without the 21-year rule, you can set up a pet trust during your lifetime without shortening its lifespan.
How do I set up a pet trust?
The best way to set up a pet trust is to consult with an attorney. Trusts are complex legal instruments that require careful drafting. However, if you want to get started, think of some of the details you would want the trust to address. Like, what veterinarian do your pets go to? What kind of veterinary care should they receive? What do they eat and how often? A trust allows you to specify these and other details.
Once you decide on how to care for your pets, you need to choose who will look after them. Like children, pets need a legal guardian. Then, you need to pick a trustee to oversee the trust’s administration. The pet’s guardian and trustee can be the same person. However, we recommend picking a trustee that’s not also the caretaker. This way, the guardian can focus on caring for your pets while the trustee looks after the finances. The trustee could also replace the caretaker with another person if necessary. Finally, you may want to appoint a trust protector. A trust protector is someone who does not have a financial interest in the trust but has the power to replace trustees or even dissolve the trust if it no longer serves its purpose. This is optional but provides an additional safety net should the trust require unforeseen modifications.
Can I leave my entire fortune to my pet?
A pet trust is undeniably the best instrument for providing for your pets after your death. But are there any limitations? Can you give your entire fortune to your pets and disinherit everyone else? The law of New York and other states requires pet trusts to be proportionate to their stated purpose. This means that you cannot set aside more money than needed to administer the trust. Excessive amounts will invite litigation from relatives and other potential beneficiaries.
However, challenging a well-drafted pet trust will be an uphill battle for money-hungry relatives. New York courts have long held that the decedent’s clear intent must be honored. See, Wager v. Wager, 96 N.Y. 164 (1884). In the matter of in re Copland, 44 Misc. 3d 485, 486, 988 N.Y.S.2d 458 (Sur. 2014), Lenore Lewis Abels left her entire $4.7 million estate to her two cats. The court refused to reduce this amount because Abels had drafted her documents carefully, making her intent clear. Her estate plan accounted for all of her money, leaving no doubt she intended for her cats to enjoy a lavish lifestyle. This means that you can leave your pets as much money as you’d like, as long as you find a way to spend it.