What happens to Fluffy? Writing your pet into your will

We often think of our pets as part of the family, so it's not unusual to worry about what might become of them after we die. With some key conversations and carefully crafted clauses in your will, you can make sure you’ve sorted out your pet’s situation before you pass away.

Roughly 60% of Australian households have pets, so when I’m drafting wills, I always ask my clients 1) “Do you have animals?” and 2) “What do you want to do with them?”

The responses vary, as do the instructions that are included in wills.

Sometimes it depends on the age of the pet. As sad as it may sound, some people say, “If I die before my animal, I’d prefer the animal to be euthanized, because it’s at such an age that re-housing it would be too difficult.”

More often, though, people want to preserve the life of their pet and to set aside a financial arrangement to help with this.

Gifting your pet to a friend or family member

In Australia, animals are property, and like other property, you can gift a pet to someone.

Whether or not that person wants the gift is another story – they can decline it.  This is a potential outcome if you leave your animal to someone without telling them.

The ideal scenario is to have a conversation ahead of time to make sure the person you intend leaving your animal to is happy to take the animal. After all, it’s a huge responsibility to adopt a pet – especially someone else’s pet.

I’ve seen this work beautifully firsthand. About 15 years ago, I drafted a will for a bachelor who owned an elderly Labrador. He spoke to his neighbours who agreed to take care of the dog should he die before the dog.  The will-maker set aside $5,000 to meet the costs of the dog’s up-keep

When my client died, the dog was successfully rehomed with the neighbours; he became part of their family and lived out his natural life expectancy. The money paid for the dog’s everyday expenses as well as a leg operation. It was a great outcome.

Setting up your pet at a legacy program

Another option is taking advantage of animal welfare agency legacy programs. Similar to gifting your pet to a person, you can gift a sum of money to the animal welfare agency of your choice that is used to rehouse or care for your animal. The RSPCA, for example, offers a Bequest Animal Program that allows pet owners to make a gift for the life-long care of their animal.

Leaving clear instructions

Apart from discussing your intentions with family and friends, the most important thing you can do is to provide clear instructions in your Will.

For example, you could include a clause in your will that says, “I’d like to gift my dog Duffy to my sister Amy”.  But what if Amy is no longer able to take care of Duffy?  You need to try and deal with these kinds of scenarios. If your instructions are unclear or unable to be implemented, it then becomes a problem for your executor.

What will your executor do if they can’t successfully re-house Duffy with someone else? They may be forced to euthanase the dog.

Taking care of finances and insurance

By law, pets can’t inherit money, but you can create a trust for them in your will.  The money in the trust can be used to pay for their care and day to day expenses in accordance with the wishes you leave. You will need to nominate a trustee to look after the funds. This might be your executor but it can be some-one else. The clause should also say where the balance of the trust goes when the pet dies.

Raising awareness of your animals

One of the most important things is to make sure that other people know that you’re a pet owner. Tell people – your neighbours, friends, family – that you’ve got an animal. That way, if something happens to you, people know to make inquiries and either collect the animal or take steps to make sure it’s being looked after.

Having a clear plan and drafting a will that includes provisions for Spot the spaniel or Mittens the cat means that your pet won’t fall through the cracks after you’re gone.

TOPIC: Will disputes
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Andrew Simpson

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
When it comes to challenging or defending a Will, Andrew Simpson is the lawyer you want fighting for you. He is a Principal and the head of Maurice Blackburn’s national Wills and Estates Law practice, based in Melbourne. Andrew has 20 years’ experience as a lawyer and for the past 18 of these years he has practiced in Wills disputes and estate planning, so he understands the many sides to estate law. Andrew is so passionate about this area of law that in 2012 he wrote the plain English guide to estate planning, You Can’t Take it With You. Andrew works exclusively in Will disputes at Maurice Blackburn, helping clients fight for their rightful entitlements every day. He is a very approachable, compassionate lawyer who has an ability to build an easy rapport with his clients. “My early life as a lawyer was spent assisting clients with estate planning issues,” says Andrew. “This advice often involved advising clients on the extent to which their Will was at risk of a challenge. I developed a deep understanding of the issues that gave rise to a right to challenge a Will. I then began assisting people who were unfairly treated by being cut out of the Will or getting a smaller benefit than they believed was owed to them. “The most rewarding part of working in Will disputes is being able to help people obtain access to estate funds in circumstances where they are in financial need. This is life changing for most clients.” Andrew holds Bachelor degrees in Arts and Law, and a Masters in Law. He was awarded the Churchill Fellowship in 2004, and visited Canada, the United States and the UK to examine international approaches to estate planning and elder law. “I am driven because I know that I can use the law to significantly improve a client’s quality of life,” says Andrew. Accreditations & Memberships Law Institute of Victoria member Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners member ...

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