According to the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey, 68 percent of U.S. households, or about 85 million families, own a pet. For many, these animals are not just companions, but beloved family members. From providing comfort in times of trouble to greeting us at the front door, it’s hard to imagine life without their unconditional love.
Nevertheless, whether you’re the proud owner of a miniature box turtle or mammoth Irish Wolfhound, owners have an obligation to ensure that their four legged friends are cared for when they’re no longer around.
But Erach F. Screwvala, an estate-planning attorney with Screwvala LLC, says that he’s noticed a rising trend in asset base management: unusual pet provisions.
Recently, one NYC woman made headlines when she left $300,000 of her $3 million estate to her two cats. The Manhattan lawyer says that though it’s not uncommon to see vast sums allocated to furry friends, you don’t need to allot such sky high funds for adequate care.
“Amounts higher than this are more common in the celebrity world – for example, Oprah Winfrey supposedly has put aside $30 million for her dogs in her will,” Screwvala said. “If such large bequests are desired, it is critical to provide for distribution of any excess amounts after the death of the pets to avoid burdensome probate proceedings to distribute any remaining money.”
In outlining pet provisions for a well-crafted estate plan, Screwvala suggests taking one of three routes: listing a beneficiary, establishing a pet trust, or finding a trustworthy organization to look after your sweet Fluffy or Fido.
First, a beneficiary will inherit your pet when you pass away; preferably, you can leave them money to provide for the animal. Next, if you desire more control, a pet trust, ideally as part of a revocable living trust, is recommended. While this plan is more expensive to set up, it provides certainty that the pet will be cared for precisely how you want, Screwvala said. It is critical to provide sufficient funds for a pet trust, so that the trustee has ample funds to execute your wishes. This is particularly true with animals that have longer life expectancies, like horses, he adds.
Lastly, finding a specialized animal care organization is a viable option to leave your furry friend in good hands. Make sure that you make arrangements in advance, as many groups will have specific guidelines, Screwvala notes. In his years as an estate planning attorney, Screwvala has encountered many bizarre requests for pet provisions.
“One that really sticks out in my mind was when I was asked to include a diamond dog collar and walking leash. Although, this was a rather peculiar request, it was definitely a wise move, as you can imagine a genuine diamond collar is incredibly valuable!" he said. "However, if the dog collar was encrusted with laboratory grown diamonds I would advise against because synthetic diamonds are of no inherent value."
Additional requests have included a wardrobe of designer animal outfits and provisions for a custom-made wooden casket for a cat, Screwvala said. While such specific requests certainly gave the owners of those animals peace of mind, establishing your estate plan with straightforward pet provisions is beneficial to all.
“The most important thing people should leave is enough money to ensure that their pet is properly cared for after they pass away,” Screwvala said. He suggests avoiding overtly ridiculous food provisions (filet mignon steak only!) or anything else that might be difficult for the caretaker to fulfill.
Ultimately, one of the smartest moves you can make is connecting with an experienced estate planning attorney who understands your local laws, Screwvala says. This expertise is critical: in some states, provisions for pet care in wills are honorary, meaning that they can be ignored by your heirs.
“They don’t need $300,000, but a loving caretaker, regular veterinarian care, and a couple square meals a day will do wonders!” he said.